Should Students Take the SAT or ACT?

Posted by Kathy Mahoney on Thursday, April 9, 2015
Kathy Mahoney

Kathy is a college admissions writer, marketer, and proud mom of two college students. After earning her Master of Science from Northeastern University, Kathy began her career as a copywriter and digital marketer. She went on to build Testive’s marketing program by helping parents navigate the college admissions process.

Many high school students and their parents agonize over the decision of whether they should take the SAT or ACT Exam. While it can seem a bit intimidating, there’s no need to be get overwhelmed by this decision.

Common questions about SAT vs ACT

  1. What does each test measure?
  2. Does one test favor a certain type of student over another?
  3. Should I just take both tests and see which one I do better on?

All fair questions. Let's get to the answers.

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What does each test measure?

Here is a quick overview of each standardized testing method:

ACT Test Overview

The ACT is comprised of Math, Science, English, and Reading tests with an optional essay.

The Math test covers elementary and intermediate algebra, plane geometry, and trigonometry. Math on the ACT is better aligned with the Common Core than math on the SAT. While there are often some easy-to-spot distractor answer choices you can eliminate, using process of elimination can be tricky.

The Science test includes very dense articles, charts and graphs that can get a little confusing to decipher. Time is not your friend for this portion of the test, so if you struggle with time management or are a slower reader, you should take this into account. That said, you can prepare for this section by getting comfortable with the language the test users and learning what to look for in the passages. Also, doing timed practice work will help you build up stamina for this section.

The English and Reading sections are both passage-based, with four essays in the Reading section and five in the English section. The key skill here is the ability to dissect a passage carefully. The English section focuses on focuses on usage mechanics and rhetorical skills; while the Reading section focuses more on comprehension. The Reading section pulls text from real life, including academic papers from social studies, natural sciences, or humanities as well as prose or quotes from literary fiction, all pretty academic stuff.


SAT Test Overview

There are only three sections on the NEW SAT; Evidence based Reading & Writing, Math, and an optional essay.

The current (as of March 2016) SAT consists of three sections; Evidence-based Reading & Writing, Math, and an optional Essay.
The recent changes to the SAT make it more similar to the ACT to reflect broader shifts in education and to counteract the growing popularity of the ACT. Regardless of the College Board’s motivation in making the changes, the result is an SAT that looks a lot like the ACT.

The Reading & Writing sections are, indeed, quite similar to the Reading and English sections on the ACT, however, instead of pulling in reading passages from things you might see in the newspaper or an academic journal, the SAT will ask students to analyze U.S. founding documents, great global conversations, and speeches by presidents.

The Math section will now include trigonometry, similar to the ACT, as well as concepts in arithmetic, algebra, problem-solving, and plane geometry.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT has no separate science section, however scientific graphs are included within the Math sections and science-focused reading passages are included within the Reading & Writing sections to better parallel Common Core testing data interpretation and analysis of concepts. Here's a graphic comparison of the ACT vs. NEW SAT  that might help you with your decision-making process.



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Does one test favor one type of student over another?

There used to be a clearer answer to this question, but as the SAT has changed to be closer in content and style to the ACT, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut.

Now, the main advantage of the SAT is time. If you add up all of the time in each section on the SAT and divide it by the number of questions and then do the same for the ACT, you’ll realize you have significantly more time per question on the SAT than on the ACT. The difference is even more marked when comparing the Math portions of each test. This can have an impact on performance for many.

As for difficulty, the Math section of the SAT is predicted to be slightly harder than that of the ACT. The Reading & Writing section of the SAT are anticipated to be about the same level of difficulty as the Reading & English sections of the ACT.

And again, the ACT is the only test with a separate Science section, so if you want to highlight your strength in this area (or camouflage a weakness), it’s worth considering this factor.

Both tests have an optional essay so that shouldn’t play a big role in your decision.


Should I just take both tests and see what happens?

This is probably the best way to come up with the most definitive answer to the question of which test to take, but it’s also the most time-consuming. If you do decide it’s worth it for you, we don’t recommend taking the time and spending the money to register for actual administrations of the test only for the purposes of deciding which to focus on in terms of prep. Instead, purchase the latest editions of College Board’s The Official SAT Study Guide (make sure it’s been updated for the March 2016 and later SAT) and the ACT’s The Real ACT. Then, take a time, proctored practice exam from each book, preferably under the supervision of a teacher or parent.

After taking both tests, you’ll have a baseline test score for each test. If you scored markedly better on one than the other, your decision is a little easier, however it’s not just about the initial score.

You’ll also want to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Which exam felt more intuitive?
  2. Which exam felt more straightforward?
  3. Which exam do you feel allows you to most efficiently show off what you are capable of to the colleges you are applying to?

From there, pick a test to focus on in terms of prep.

Another thing to consider is whether your state requires either test as a statewide exam. If it does, it probably makes sense to focus on that test simply because you’ll need to take it anyway!

For those students who still decide they want to take both exams the road ahead is tricky. Both exams are renowned for their repetitiveness and predictability, but each also takes a very particular approach. Make sure you study for each test separately and space them out. Trying to study for both at the same time is likely to lead to frustration and confusion.

Ultimately, each student has to make their own decision which test or tests they want to take. But remember, as with anything in life, focus, effort, and preparation are the key to success.

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