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Choosing Between the SAT and ACT


If you’re thinking about taking a standardized test to help your admissions chances, the first step is to decide whether you want to focus on the SAT or the ACT. This document describes the differences between the tests and explains how to figure out which one is best for you. If you don’t see your question answered here, feel free to reach out to me at ben.paris@gmail.com. Here we go!


·       Do colleges prefer one test over the other?

No. Every college that accepts one accepts the other. And a strong score on one is just as valuable as a strong score on the other. The colleges just want to see high scores and don’t care which one you take.


·       Shouldn’t I take both the SAT and ACT?

No. Focus on one and ignore the other unless you’ve hit a brick wall with your prep. The SAT and the ACT have overlaps, but they are different. Investigate both and focus on the one that seems better for you. Don’t prepare for both at the same time. The only time I advise taking both tests is when you’ve reached the limit with one of them and want to give the other a shot just in case. Most people are better off choosing one and sticking with it.


·       How are the SAT and ACT different?


Here are the big differences:

o   The SAT is a computer adaptive test, but the ACT is a traditional paper-based test. (The ACT has a computer-based version, but most people take the paper version.) The SAT’s computer interface is no big deal for students who have grown up learning on computers, but the adaptive format makes a difference because you get a harder second section if you do well on the first section.


That second SAT section can be tough, but the program accounts for that and doesn’t penalize you as much for questions you miss. On the other hand, if you miss a lot of questions on the first section, you’ll get an easier second section, but your score will be much lower and it will be virtually impossible to recover. So you want to make sure that you do well on the first section and hang in there on the second section.


o   The SAT is 1/2 math, whereas the ACT is 1/4 Math. For student who are weak at math, this is a strong reason to take the ACT and limit the damage from a low math score. However, the ACT has its own challenges, and some people with weak math skills are still better off taking the SAT. Similarly, students who are strong at math tend to look at the SAT first, because a strong math score is half the battle. Still, the SAT includes challenging reading questions that are harder than typical ACT questions, and so even strong math students should consider the ACT.


o   The ACT has a Science Reasoning section, which is basically reading comprehension with graphs. The Science Reasoning section doesn’t really test your science knowledge. Almost all of the questions involve interpreting charts, tables, and graphs. The questions are usually pretty simple, but you have only 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, which is a demanding pace. That brings us to the last major difference: timing.


o   SAT Reading and Writing has lots of little passages with one question each. ACT Reading has long passages with lots of questions each. SAT reading/writing questions are more varied and more complicated. You could be asked what would strengthen an argument, what data from a table could support a claim, what function a sentence performs, and more. ACT Reading questions are simpler; about half of them are direct quotes or paraphrases of just one sentence.


o   The ACT is more straightforward, but more time-pressured. The SAT has more time per question, but the questions are harder. ACT reading is much easier than SAT reading, but you have to move quickly. ACT Science Reasoning is also very time-pressured. ACT English has 75(!) questions in 45 minutes. If you can handle the speed, the ACT could be a good choice. If you need more time, the SAT could be a better option, but keep in mind that SAT questions tend to be harder, especially when you do well enough to get to the second, harder section.


o   The SAT has more vocabulary questions, and those questions are much harder than ACT vocabulary questions. Both tests have vocabulary questions, but the ACT doesn’t have many, and they’re pretty easy. The SAT has lots of them, and the words are much more sophisticated. Released SATs tested your knowledge of words like “recant,” “innocuous,” and “peripheral.” Students who don’t have strong vocabularies are going to have a hard time getting a top score on the SAT.


o   The ACT tests a broader range of math and grammar concepts. The SAT focuses more on algebra, statistics, functions, and longer word problems. ACT Math tests a little bit of everything you’ve learned over your entire time in school. Similarly, the ACT tests a lot of grammar concepts that don’t appear on the SAT, which focuses on things like punctuation, agreement, and verb tense.


 

 

·       Which test (SAT or ACT) should I take?

To get an early read on which may be better for you, take a practice SAT and a practice ACT and compare results. Make sure that you take official tests. Here are some helpful links for official practice material:


If you’d like more SAT or ACT released tests, send me an email and I’ll give you access to what I have. Currently, there are tons of released ACTs out there, but just a few SATs.

Generally, people who are better at math should lean toward the SAT, because that's half math. But some of those math people have trouble with SAT vocabulary and the harder SAT Reading questions. People who want to avoid math should give the ACT a look, but remember that instead of all that extra math you're getting Science Reasoning, which can also be challenging.


When comparing practice test results, look at your scores but and think about your chances of improvement. For example, lots of people find ACT Science Reasoning difficult at first, but scores improve a lot with practice. If you’re still not sure, feel free to reach out to me for advice. Just keep in mind that sometimes either choice is reasonable, and you just need to make a decision.

 

  • Anything else we’ve learned since the SAT went digital?

It’s early, but the March SAT was pretty much as expected on the Reading/Writing side, but the Math test was very difficult, much harder than most of the practice tests. Students were reporting math scores about 50 points lower than their typical practice scores. This could be a one-time thing, but it’s hard to tell. Digital SAT scores can be very unforgiving, meaning that missing a few questions can really hurt your score. For example, on one practice test you can get 48 out of 54 Reading/Writing questions correct and get only a 680. Adaptive tests are supposed to give harder questions but allow you to get more of them wrong, and that’s not what we’re seeing so far. It might be exceptionally difficult to get SAT digital scores above 1400 or so, and so right now I’m leaning toward recommending the ACT for students with very ambitious score goals.


On the other hand, I’ve seen cases where students with lots of weaknesses can still get to a 1200 or so on the SAT with just a little work. So someone who starts in the middle and doesn’t have a lot of time might be better off with the SAT. Again, it’s still early, but this is what I’m seeing.

 

  • What about the PSAT? How important is it?

Unless you do spectacularly well, the PSAT is just a practice test that helps you get ready for the SAT. If you do very well, you could be in line for a scholarship. The cutoff points vary by state and by year, but your scores need to be close to perfect to be in the running. For most people, the PSAT is a low-stakes event, although it does get you used to the SAT’s format, since the tests are very similar. If your PSAT score is at or above the cutoff point in your state, you could qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. There’s more detail at www.nationalmerit.org.

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