Our terrific college admissions counselor Abby wrote this post – she also coaches students on writing and helps with SAT/ACT Prep!
For years, parents have asked us whether their child should take the ACT or SAT. Until recently, the ACT was considered somewhat less popular, even though it has been well-known in the Midwest and Southern part of the U.S. for several decades. However, in 2012, the ACT overtook the SAT in popularity, prompting many students and parents to question which test is “better” to take for college applications.
The simple answer? Neither. Both are accepted by colleges and universities, and are weighted the same in admissions. The harder answer comes when determining which test students might score better on, given their particular strengths and skill set. The emphasis here is on might, as one important statistic to keep in mind is that the bulk of students score nearly the same on both tests—most students and parents aren’t aware of this fact. Many student prep for one exam and then turn to the other when scores are less than desirable, which can add unnecessary stress and not be the best use of time and resources. The tests are quite different and require different preparation strategies, but taking both can add an unnecessary workload in the already packed junior year.
A better plan is becoming familiar with both tests before registering and choosing one to focus on. In most cases, we recommend taking a test 2-3 times in the junior year and senior fall, if necessary, and brushing up on core concepts and sections proven to be most challenging in between exams.
So how do students start to differentiate between the two tests and decide which one to take? Here are a few of the major differences to consider:
1. Scoring and Sections
The ACT has a total score of 36, with four long sections (five with the “optional” essay which most schools require, so it’s not really optional) which cover English, critical reading, math and science. There is no score penalty for wrong answers.
The SAT has a total score of 2400 with 10 sections, covering English, critical reading, math and writing. One-quarter of a point is taken off for wrong answers. However, the SAT is being redesigned, and starting Spring 2016 the new SAT will be out of 1600 points and there will be no penalty for wrong answers.
2. Degrees of Difficulty
The ACT is perceived to be more straightforward and based on general knowledge, but don’t get too comfortable. Two reasons: math and science. The math section is quite a bit more advanced than the SAT (it includes trigonometry) and the science section is an outlier—while in-depth outside knowledge isn’t necessary, it is helpful to understand how scientific hypotheses are formed and the basics of experimental set-up. The science section really tests reasoning ability, and boils down to how well a student can evaluate data from graphs, charts and experimental results.
On the other hand, the SAT focuses more on reasoning and goes easier on students’ math skills, testing through coordinate geometry. However, deep knowledge of vocabulary is necessary to survive the English and critical reading sections. Other things to consider: there are no scientific experiments to interpret and the sections are notably shorter.
3. Test Length and Pacing
The ACT takes 3 hours and 25 minutes with the writing test, while the SAT is slightly longer at 3 hours and 45 minutes. While both tests require that students be able to read and absorb material at a quick pace, a crucial piece of how successful a student is on the ACT involves keeping a close eye on the clock. One example is the math section, which consists of 60 questions in 60 minutes.
Again, the SAT is being redesigned for Spring 2016, and the new test will be shorter – 3 hours in length instead of 3 hours and 45 minutes. The essay on the redesigned SAT will be optional and come at the end of the exam.
Hopefully this post gives students and parents a sense of the tests and a starting point to determine which might be the best fit. The best way for students to make this decision is to take a practice test of the ACT and the SAT, which will give them a hands-on idea of what’s ahead.
Here are some additional resources on the issue: