SAT vs. ACT - Which to Choose?

There are few questions we receive more often than this one: “should my child be taking the SAT or the ACT?”

The answer, of course, will vary on a case-by-case basis. We set out to answer that question and address a few common concerns for two different perspectives: that of a parent, and that of a student.

 


A Parent’s Perspective

So, you’re trying to decide which test is best for your son or daughter. Navigating this topic isn’t an easy one, especially considering the misinformation and superstition floating about. After decades of SAT domination, we’re pretty used to hearing parents claim that the SAT is a more respected test, and that the ACT is less interesting to colleges. In the modern era, this is not true. The current accepted wisdom among admissions faculty is that the SAT and the ACT hold equal weight on an application, and no advantage is given to one test over the other. And we’re not just speaking without qualification here… we called up university admissions offices and asked them directly which test they preferred. Without exception, we were told that schools value both tests equally. So there it is, straight from the horse’s mouth: colleges view the SAT and the ACT as equals, with no preference given to one over the other. 

To decide which test better fits your child, it can be helpful to have him or her try a practice SAT and a practice ACT to compare performance. Although the two tests are scored and scaled differently, you can translate between SAT and ACT scores on this concordance website here. If you happen to be located in the South Florida area, SAT/ACT diagnostic testing is one of the many services that we offer. You can find our contact information elsewhere on our website.


A Student’s Perspective

If you’re a student trying to decide which test will be a better fit, there are a few things to consider. We’re often asked which test is easier, and the answer is that it will totally vary based on what you’re good at and what you’re not. The main distinctions between the tests come down to differences in scope, complexity, and speed. Here are the important bits:

The ACT, as a whole, is a straightforward test with very little time. If we had to summarize the character of the entire ACT test, it’d be shockingly direct but blazingly fast. Questions on this test tend to be straight-shooters with little time wasted. You usually know exactly what the question is asking, and you should be able to assess right away whether you know it or not. The ACT math covers more topics than the SAT’s, with extra emphasis on some of the trickier bits of geometry and more topics from pre-calculus and beyond. In fact, the math section is really like a smörgåsbord of math topics, with a small sampling of everything (but as a result not very much of any one thing). The reading section here is much like the SAT’s, but it’s a lot faster (and often a fair bit easier). The ACT also features a unique science section. This section is just testing your ability to read charts and data quickly… it requires relatively little outside knowledge of science. The vast majority of information needed for the questions is presented in the passages, much like it is on the reading section.

Overall, if you’re a fast worker who can handle the very short time limits of the ACT, you’ll probably benefit from the straightforward nature of the questions. For students who can work quickly and have a wider sampling of math classes, we’d typically recommend the ACT.

The SAT, as a whole, is a ‘trickier’ test with a lot more time to spare. If we had to summarize the character of the entire SAT test, it’d be a leisurely pace with a lot of hidden danger. Questions on this test tend to be more obfuscated, with a certain ‘puzzle-like’ quality to them where you’ve got to somehow unpack the question and solve it like a riddle. Paths to solutions on this test are often a lot less obvious than they are on the ACT, but it’s not all bad news… to help make sure you’ve got the means to pull the tougher questions apart, you’ve been given a lot more time for each question.

The reading section here has added an additional passage: the primary historical document. This is a reading passage written from the midst of history, meaning its 1800’s byline can often discourage students. Across the section, the reading questions also tend to be a little more complex than the ACT’s. The SAT math section is a lot more focused, with a strong emphasis on algebra above all other topics. What it lacks in breadth of disciplines covered it makes up for in depth of algebra covered… the SAT test will dig pretty deep into the dustiest corners of algebra and pull out some relatively obscure topics. This means you’ve got to know algebra pretty well to survive this section. But the good news? You can forget about some of the ugly math topics the ACT loves to pull out (including matrices, permutations/combinations, ellipses, etc.).

Overall, the SAT would be recommended to students who enjoy lateral thinking, aren’t intimidated by more complex questions, have taken few math classes beyond algebra, and prefer to work at a slower pace than the ACT requires.


Whichever you wind up choosing, remember that there’s no need to commit to just one path! Students are free to try their hands at both tests, and they might just be surprised at which they do better on.