SAT vs ACT: Setting the Record Straight

Should I take the SAT, ACT, or both? Without a doubt, this is the number one question that students (and their parents) ask me. Usually, students are well versed in the basic differences between these two tests, but unfortunately, they've also absorbed a lot of half-truths and urban legends from their peers, teachers, and guidance counselors. In this article, I'll discuss some common misconceptions about the two tests. Then, I'll consider some factors that might tip the scales in favor of either the ACT or SAT. Let's start with 5 urban legends about the SAT/ACT:

1. The ACT is easier.

In reality, each test has its own set of difficulties. The ACT has significantly more time pressure than the SAT. The ACT also covers more material: More grammar rules, more math topics, and some rudimentary science concepts. On the other hand, the vocabulary on the SAT is tougher, and SAT questions also have a well-deserved reputation for being "trickier" and less straightforward than ACT questions. On balance, these differences between the two tests usually even out. While a small percentage of students will score higher on one test, most students will perform similarly on both tests.

2. Colleges prefer the SAT.


Back in the Stone Age, Ivy League and west coast schools preferred the SAT, while Midwestern colleges preferred the ACT. Today, those differences have disappeared. All colleges in the U.S. will accept either test, and while my colleague Randall Malcolm has discovered a slight statistical bias in favor of the SAT (see the Spring 2011 Noodle Newsletter), the difference is pretty negligible.

3. I should take the ACT because it's shorter, and I can skip the essay.


It's true that if you skip the essay, the ACT is almost an hour shorter than the SAT. However, while ACT doesn't require the essay, many colleges do. At many other schools, the essay is "recommended," and these schools will look unfavorably on students who skip the essay. Therefore, it's usually a bad idea to skip the essay. And once you include the essay, the ACT is only 20 minutes shorter than the SAT, a difference that is not particularly significant.


4. I should take the SAT because I'm not good at science.


It's true that the ACT has a science section, which scares some students. But the ACT science section isn't real science, and an aptitude for science is a lousy predictor of success on this section. The ability to read quickly and interpret charts and graphs is more important on this section than knowing a lot of science.

5. I should take the ACT because I won't have to take subject tests.

For many selective colleges, you have two options: take the SAT plus two subject tests, or take the ACT and skip the subject tests. For high school students, this seems like a no-brainer: Fewer tests to take! However, skipping subject tests is not always a wise choice. For students who excel in particular academic areas, the subject tests are an opportunity to shine: I've had many students who had medium-high SAT scores, but notched very high scores on the subject tests. For these students, taking the SAT plus subject tests was the better option. It's also important to check out the requirements for the colleges you're interested in. Some schools have recently dropped subject test requirements, so these tests may not even be an issue.

How do I decide which test to take?

The bottom line is that neither the ACT nor SAT is objectively better or easier. Still, some students do perform better on one or the other. Here are some factors that might influence your decision:

1. How's your vocabulary?


Students who have limited vocabularies and struggle to master new words often do better with the ACT. If you've tried the SAT and feel like you're lost in a sea of strange, exotic words, the ACT might be for you. Learn how to improve your vocabulary for the SAT or ACT.


2. Can you work fast?


As mentioned earlier, time pressure on the ACT is significantly more intense than on the SAT. You need to answer questions faster, but even more importantly, you need to read fast. If you're a slow reader, the Reading and Science sections on the ACT will be a real challenge. On the SAT, a slow reader who uses smart test-taking strategies can still do very well on the Critical Reading section.


3. Are you a slacker, or an overachiever?


Smart slackers--sharp kids who don't work as hard as they should--may do better with the SAT. Overachievers--those who always go the extra mile to get good grades--may prefer the ACT, which more directly tests the material learned in school, particularly on the Math section.

4. Do your test scores vary widely from one subject to another?


When colleges look at SAT scores, they tend to weigh each of the subscores (Math, Reading, Writing) individually; when they examine ACT scores, they focus on the composite score, which is an average of the four subscores. So, if you've taken the PSAT, or an SAT/ACT practice test, and there's a huge disparity between your subscores, the ACT might be better for you. This is particularly true if your Writing subscore is significantly higher than the others. Many colleges are still ignoring the SAT Writing section, whereas on the ACT, the English section (roughly analogous to the SAT Writing section) counts as much as any other.

5. Does one test "feel" better?

Don't discount your gut reaction to these tests. Research has shown that strongly negative or positive feelings about a test have a definite impact on score. If you really loathe one of these tests, and think the other's not so bad, you'll probably improve more on the latter.

Now that you're armed with some solid information about the tests, the most important thing is to gain some familiarity with both of them. Try a practice test for each. Make sure you use real, previously administered SAT's and ACT's for an accurate comparison. And of course, consulting with an experienced test prep tutor can help a great deal.

Find a test prep tutor now or learn more about the benefits of proctored practice tests.