SAT or ACT? Take Both.

High schools typically offer either the SAT (PSAT) or ACT (PLAN), why should you take both?  The short answer is because you want to perform your best on standardized tests.  Since colleges regard the tests as equal and since they are very different tests, take the one where you perform best.  I encourage you to, by the end of your sophomore year, take both practice tests – you can do this at home, no charge, and grade your own test. Familiarize yourself with both tests before taking them so you can get a reasonable read on your performance. See if you score higher and are more comfortable with one than the other. Then make a decision regarding which test to focus your studying on. 

A comment on the tests being equally regarded:  Prior to 1959 the SAT was the only game in town.  When the ACT was introduced, it took hold more firmly in the Midwest while many on the coasts didn’t even know the ACT was an option.  In 2007 all colleges accepted both tests.  In 2012 the ACT surpassed the SAT in number of tests taken with the ACT representing the high school exit exam or supplement in nine states.  Colleges, even those from bastions of the SAT, are by now very familiar with the ACT and generally accept it equally along with SAT. That said, there may be a preference for the SAT, even if unspoken, by selective colleges, particularly engineering schools, due to the nature of the test (described below).  My verdict, however, is that if you score higher on the ACT, take it and provide the higher scores. 

So how are these tests “very different” from each other? Simply put, the SAT is a reasoning test focused on problem solving and critical thinking while the ACT is a content, curriculum-based achievement test. It is true that the SAT’s recent changes (March 2016) bring it closer in alignment with the ACT.  For example: the penalty for guessing wrong has been eliminated; there are 4 rather than 5 possible answers; vocabulary and grammar is more practical and within context; and data on results is now as rich as the ACT.  That said, the essence of the SAT remains critical thinking – basically the questions are “harder” with less rote memory than the ACT.  But, you also have more time to answer them.  Here’s how that translates.

  • Math questions are more conceptual on the SAT than the ACT, but you are given 80 minutes for 52 questions versus only 60 minutes for 60 questions on the ACT.  You can use your calculator for all sections of the ACT, but only the longest SAT math section.
  • The new SAT replaces the two previous Critical Reading and Writing sections with one Reading and Writing & Language section, which is very similar to the ACT.  Like the ACT, the new SAT no longer tests grammar rules without context, drops sentence completion and tests vocabulary in context.  Like the ACT the essay is optional (but, frankly, the essay is not optional for selective schools).  Once again, more time is offered on the SAT than the ACT – which leads one to believe that SAT questions are a bit less straightforward.  The new SAT also incorporates some data interpretation, graphs and charts, which one finds on the ACT Science section. 

Here's a short story, which might provide some insight to the timing/ difficulty question and demonstrates the need to start preparing early. A foreign-national student of mine worked with an SAT tutor throughout her sophomore year and had not made much headway on her practice test scores.  When I started to work with her I asked her to take the ACT and, with only a quick pass through the test to familiarize herself, she scored slightly higher on the ACT than the SAT.  Yet, I was unable to convince her to focus on the ACT – she felt the pace was too fast given English was her second language.  She continued to study for the SAT her junior year, but was willing to take both exams at the end of the year.  She again failed to improve her SAT scores but her ACT scores were strong – and, she finally scored a perfect score in math, which had been elusive on the SAT.  She is now convinced and will be focusing on the ACT for her final standardized test before applying to colleges.   

A final comment for 2016:  Khan Academy has some excellent prep material for the new SAT.  But for those of you who are willing to do practice test after practice test (see my blog “Testing Times”) there are simply more past ACT tests out there than there are past SAT tests.  This is a consideration, but not an automatic requirement to take the ACT.  The SAT math questions have not changed substantially, if math concepts and logic is your strength you may still do best on the SAT.  The only way to know is to take the test.

Note: the SAT we are discussing here is also referred to as the “SAT I” to distinguish it from the “SAT II”, or “Subject Test”, which continue to be required by many / most selective colleges.