I Need Help Choosing Between the SAT and ACT!
How Do I Choose the Best One?
This is taken from an article I wrote for Greenfield Hill Neighbors in February, 2020.
If you’re like me—older than 30 and an east coast college alum—there’s a good chance you never took an ACT for college. Maybe you had that one friend who “wanted to find himself” and took the ACT to head to the Midwest, but chances are you’ve first heard rumblings of it as your kids have started exploring college options.
In the test prep industry, one of the most common questions is, “Should my child take the SAT or ACT?”
This question has an easy answer: I don’t know.
However, even those who have already planted their SAT/ACT flags should know some of the differences to help people like me best help you. Although many (arguably, most) students score similarly on both tests, each test has eccentricities that might mesh with a student’s academic profile, learning style, and study habits.
Most importantly, if a college is not test-optional, it will consider either test score for admission; there are no such things as “SAT-only” or “ACT-only” schools. That said, some colleges may have a slightly easier entry path using one test, especially for a recruited athlete.
You may hear things like, “The SAT is a reasoning test; the ACT is a content test,” and that’s generally true. In layman’s terms, the SAT features less material, but, oftentimes, presents it in a convoluted way. The ACT typically provides its content in a straightforward way, but it has nearly three times as much of that content than the SAT does.
Notably, the ACT math section goes through Algebra 2, featuring some material that our local students may not see until Precalculus. The ACT also has more geometry than the SAT. Accordingly, students who are comfortable with higher math may have an easier time on the ACT… although students who took Geometry in 8th or 9th grade probably need refreshing. The SAT stops at about 60% of what many of our schools teach in Algebra 2; only 5-7% of the test is geometry. Both tests heavily feature Algebra 1, Prealgebra, and some Statistics.
The ACT features an entire science section, whereas the SAT tests science knowledge indirectly. However, the ACT science section is more a test of reading than an AP science exam, and students who are comfortable with science are generally not as panicked on the ACT.
The ACT gives students much less time per question than the SAT; this really rears its head on the Reading section. The SAT allots 13 minutes, on average, per passage while the ACT only allots 8 minutes and 45 seconds. Passages on both tests are similar in terms of length and number of questions. A caveat, though—the harder passages on the SAT are objectively harder than those on the ACT.
The English sections on both tests are similar, although the ACT does test a higher percent of grammar and punctuation rules (which are generally easier to learn).
Both tests have an optional essay; most students should not take it unless a targeted college recommends or requires it.
Still, many people are still uncertain which test is better. Enter our heroine—data. The best way to determine the better test is to take each in a mock test setting. I never recommend “hybrid-tests” (read why by clicking on the “Free Info” link on our webpage), but almost all test-prep companies offer a practice SAT or ACT. Just make sure the test follows the three Rs: Real, Released, and Recent.
Any test other than one created by CollegeBoard (SAT) or ACT is less likely to model the actual test well. Students can also download free tests that follow the three Rs from College Board’s website, ACT’s website, or below.
Students SHOULD NEVER EVER take an official test “for practice.” Besides taking weeks to get scores back, the score reports from SAT and ACT give remarkably little data on how to improve.
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Here are the Released Tests That Satisfy the 3 Rs
The answer keys and scoring scales are included with the ACT and offered as an additional link for the SATs above. If you want a more detailed breakdown of your test, use our test submittal forms.