Should I Take the SAT or ACT? - 6 Big Questions to Help You Decide
Since colleges and universities will accept either the SAT and the ACT, picking which test you should take is a huge decision for students. Parents often ask us if there is a certain test that we recommend, and the honest answer is that it depends on each students. Neither test is overall easier, but there are certain differences that may make the ACT or the SAT a better fit for you.
In this post, I will breakdown the 6 major differences between the SAT and the ACT and discuss how these differences could make the SAT or ACT easier for you. Before reading this article, it will be good to know the basic information About the ACT and About the SAT. In addition, you might want to read our shorter post about SAT vs. ACT - Choosing Which Test To Take.
Over the years, I have counseled hundreds of students through the ACT vs. SAT decision. This article will highlight the important differences between the SAT and ACT and will give you the key pieces of information that I use to help guide students and parents through this crucial decision.
We will start with the more general differences between the tests and then dive more into the details. As we address each difference, I ask you a questions to consider that will help you discover whether the ACT or SAT will be a better fit for you.
1) How Fast Do You Work? - The Pacing of the Test
The ACT is a faster-paced test than the SAT. The questions on the ACT are usually less complex and more straightforward when compared to the SAT, but students on the ACT will need to answer these questions much more quickly. On the ACT, students will have an average of 49 seconds per question, but students on the SAT have an average of 1 minute and 10 seconds per question. While the ACT questions may feel easier at times, it can be difficult to answer them quickly enough. On the other hand, the SAT problems may feel harder, but you have more time to figure out how to solve them.
Time management is important on both tests, but it is especially important on the faster-paced ACT.
Summary: The ACT is usually better for students who are faster readers and can work quickly through a lot of simpler problems. On the other hand, the SAT better suits strong analytical thinkers who can work through more complex problems.
2) What's the Deal with the ACT Science Test?
The ACT has a Science Test while the SAT does not. The Science Test is one of the ACT's four sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science). The SAT does not have a Science section and instead has a second math section (Reading, Writing & Language, No-calculator Math, With-Calculator Math).
However, the ACT Science Test does not really test science - it tests a student's ability to quickly read and analyze tables, charts, and graphs. Little to no outside science knowledge is required! Even if you do not like science classes, you may be fine on the ACT Science Test. That being said, if science is a strength of yours, you will likely be much more confident and comfortable in this section.
Don't worry you won't need any of these...the ACT Science Test actually requires almost no science knowledge.
Most students will not like the Science Test on their first practice ACT, as this skill is not something taught at school. But do not let this dissuade you from taking the ACT. Once you know How To Properly Approach the Science Test and complete more practice sections, your scores will likely increase significantly.
To mirror the Science Test on the ACT, the SAT includes charts and graphs in all four sections of the test. In other words, charts and graphs will appear in the Reading, Writing & Language, and Math section of the SAT. Based on how students do on these questions, you will get an "Analysis in Science"and an "Analysis in History/Social Studies" subscore on your SAT score report. This is NOT part of your overall score out of 1600.
Summary: Students need to know how to read charts and graphs for both the SAT and the ACT. Students who are strong in this skill and comfortable with science terminology will have an advantage on the ACT. However, since this skill is required on both tests, it is usually not a deciding factor when picking between the SAT and ACT.
3) How Strong Are You At Reading Comprehension?
Compared to the ACT, the SAT Reading Test is much longer and slower paced. The SAT Reading Test is a 65 minute section with five long passages and 52 questions (1:15 per question), and the ACT Reading Test is a 35 minute section with four long passages and 40 questions (53 second per question).
On the ACT, students must work quickly through each question, but the questions are very straightforward. Most of the time, the correct answer is exactly in the passage or a re-wording of the evidence in the passage. The challenge for students is finding the correct piece(s) of information in the passage quickly. If you find the right part of the passage, the correct answer is usually pretty obvious. In general, the ACT will not tell you where in the passage a question is referring to, so you will need to remember where the information is in the passage. As a result, students can struggle with the time constrains and have trouble finishing all four passages.
On the SAT, students have more time per questions, but the questions are consequently more difficult. Rather than simply finding the evidence in the passage, the SAT asks students to use a higher level of reading comprehension. To find the correct answers, students must often understand the context, recognize the author's tone, and identify what is being implied. The answers are rarely as obvious as they are on the ACT, but, of course, you have more time to read the passage more carefully. In addition, many questions on the SAT have a number line included and, even if they do not, the questions go in chronological order, so finding the right part of the passage is easy. As a result, students will spend much less time scanning the passage and more time carefully analyzing the passage to find the correct answer.
Try both the SAT and ACT to find out which Reading Test you prefer.
As a result, the ACT is better for faster readers and students who can remember where certain details are located. It is also often a good fit for students who consider reading comprehension a weakness. In my opinion, learning to find correct answers on the ACT is much easier than learning how to find correct answers on the SAT. In addition, the SAT's 65-minute Reading Test is a lot of reading for any student who dislikes reading comprehension!
On the other hand, the SAT is better for strong readers who do not read very quickly. The slower pace on the SAT gives students time to dissect the passage and find the right answer. The SAT is also better for slower readers who simply cannot finish the Reading Test on the ACT. On the SAT, these students often have enough time to get through all of the questions and do not have to guess as time is running out.
Summary: Being a fast reader and remembering where information is in the passage will give you a big advantage on the ACT. On the other hand, the SAT is better for students who are strong readers but need more time to analyze the passage.
4) You're Taking My Calculator Away???
The SAT has a no-calculator Math section. The first 25-minute math section of the SAT does not let students use their calculators. Students are given their calculators back for the longer 55-minute math section. The ACT allows students to use their calculators for the entire Math Test.
Every question on the SAT no-calculator section is solvable by hand, but students will still need to be comfortable with mental math or completing calculations on paper. In addition, students will need to properly apply math rules and formulas rather than use their calculators to find which answer is correct.
Summary: If you are not comfortable and confident solving math problems without a calculator, the ACT will be a better fit for you.
5) How Broad are your Math Skills?
While both the SAT and ACT are heavy on algebra skills, the ACT tests a much broader set of math topics than the SAT.
The ACT is very heavy on geometry and algebra, but it also includes problems on advanced topics like trigonometry, conic sections, matrices, asymptotes, and logarithms. Students who are strong in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry will be better suited for the ACT.
Most of the more advanced topics on the ACT do not appear on the SAT. Instead, the SAT has more problems on data analysis and modeling. On the SAT, students will not only need to be able to solve algebraic math problems but also need to understand what the numbers in a formula actually mean and how it is displayed on a graph or chart. The SAT also has grid-in questions where students will need to solve for the answer on their own and are not given multiple-choice answers. On the other hand, the ACT is all multiple-choice.
Summary: If you have a broader set of math skills and are comfortable with geometry and trigonometry, the ACT Math will likely be easier for you than the SAT Math. If you are stronger in Algebra and feel comfortable with data analysis and modeling, than the SAT will fit your skills better.
6) Which Test's Scoring Better Shows Off Your Strengths?
When taking the SAT or ACT, your goal is to get the best score possible. There are some significant differences in how the SAT and ACT are scored that might make you score way higher on one test than another. If you are extremely strong at math, the SAT may be better for you.
The SAT has two big sections that get scored - the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and the Math. Each section is scored out of 800 points, so the total score on the SAT is out of 1600 points. That means that Math is half of your total score on the SAT.
On the other hand, the ACT has four sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science) that get scored out of a possible 36. The composite ACT score out of 36 is simply an average of a student's scores on all four sections. As a result, Math is only a quarter of your total score on the ACT.
You want to pick the right test to make you look good!
So what does this mean for you?
If you are an extremely strong math student, the SAT will let you better showcase your skills. However, that does not automatically mean that you should pick the SAT. Many of the strong math students will also thrive on the ACT Science Test. Before making a final ACT vs. SAT decision, you need to consider the differences between the Reading Tests as well to make sure you are comfortable with the longer SAT Reading Test.
If this sums up your thoughts on Math, the ACT is probably the test for you!
If you are a weaker math student, the ACT will likely better showcase your skills. You will also have your calculator for the entire ACT. Again, this does not mean that you should automatically pick the ACT, as you will have to deal with the ACT Science Test.
Summary: If you are a strong math student, the SAT may be a better fit for you since 50% of your final score comes from the Math. If math is not your strength, the ACT will likely be better for you since you get your calculator the entire time and only 25% of your score is from the Math.
What To Do Next?
Having read this article, you probably have an idea about whether you think the SAT or ACT will be a better fit for you. The best thing to do now is take a practice test and see how the test really feels. If you still on the fence about whether the SAT or ACT is best for you, we advise taking a full SAT and a full ACT to see which you prefer and which you score better on.
Getting Ready For Test Day
Once you have decided between the ACT and SAT, you will need to put together a plan to get ready for test day.
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