SAT Versus ACT 101

Junior year of high school can be one of the busiest and most stressful years in the lead-up to college. This is the year when most students take their college entrance exams -- either the SAT, the ACT, or both. Deciding which test to prepare for is an important decision that requires some forethought. It is helpful to check the admissions requirements of schools your child will be applying to in advance, but there are other factors to weigh in making this decision as well. How do the SAT and ACT differ? Which test is the right one for your child?

Understand The Options!

There are a number of issues to consider when you and your child try to decide which test will showcase his or her strengths and increase the chances of getting an acceptance letter in the mail. First, a review: What are the differences between the ACT and the SAT, anyway?

Traditionally taken by students east of the Mississippi. Traditionally taken by students west of the Mississippi but growing in popularity on the East Coast. Every college that accepts the SAT Reasoning Test accepts the ACT.
Tests "aptitude" by assessing logic, critical thinking, and vocabulary. Tests knowledge learned in high school subjects. The ACT consists of straightforward content questions so it is less strategy-driven.
The three main components are Math, Critical Reading, and Writing. The SAT's ten sections are divided into three Math sections, three Critical Reading sections, two Writing sections, an experimental section, and an essay. The first section is always the essay, and the last section is always a short writing section. The other parts are presented randomly. The ACT's five components are always in the same order: English, Math, Reading, Science and Writing (the essay). For students who prefer predictability or are prone to test anxiety, the set order of the ACT may be helpful.
3 hours and 45 minutes 3 hours and 25 minutes If focus is a concern, consider the ACT.
Competitive colleges often require students to submit scores for two or three Subject Tests in addition to their SAT scores. Many competitive colleges will accept the ACT alone without SAT Subject Tests. Students may be able to reduce the number of tests they have to take by taking the ACT.

In summary, the ACT is accepted by all colleges, tests what students have learned, presents questions in a predictable, straightforward manner, and is shorter. In general, the SAT requires more strategy, practice and tutoring. These are some of the basic differences between the two tests, but there are other factors to consider as well.

The ACT & SAT showcase different strengths

What kind of student is your child? If he or she generally does well in classes but sometimes has trouble with exams, then the ACT might be the better test choice. The ACT is an achievement test -- it tests what students have learned in school. The questions tend to be straightforward, and fewer test-taking strategies are needed to get a good score. The ACT, however, contains higher-level math than the SAT, and includes a science section. The ACT includes trigonometry, while the SAT only includes algebra II.  The science section asks student to engage in critical thinking about science information that is provided in the exam.

The SAT's Critical Reading section's sentence completions test vocabulary. If the sentence completions pull up your child's Critical Reading score, the SAT may be the better test. If, however, your child does not already have an expansive vocabulary or memorizing flash cards is not your child's forte, the sentence completions may hurt his or her Critical Reading score. If so, the ACT may be the better option.

Colleges are kinder when it comes to ACT scores

Often colleges seem to accept students with ACT scores that are comparably lower than the SAT scores accepted at the same school! This seems odd, but there is a simple reason behind it. Colleges and Universities need to attract undergraduates in order to financially support themselves. One factor in attracting new students is the ratings put together by the "U.S News & World Report." This report ranks institutions on a number of factors, including average SAT scores of incoming freshmen. This results in pressure on Admissions Officers to keep this average competitive. In practice, it means that students with good grades, exceptional references, and strong extracurricular activities might still be rejected on the basis of SAT scores. ACT scores, however, are not included in the ranking criteria, allowing Admissions Officers to accept students with lower ACT scores. It is not unusual for college coaches to advise recruits to take the ACT instead of the SAT.

All colleges honor the ACT's version of "Score Choice"

By refraining from indicating which schools they are applying to when they register to take the ACT, students can take the ACT as many times as they would like, and then select only the best scores to send along to colleges. There is an enormous psychological boost that comes from knowing that the student can take the ACT as many times as he or she likes, and that colleges will only see the highest score.

Traditionally, all SAT scores were sent to colleges for consideration in the admissions process, but last year the College Board instituted "Score Choice" for the SAT which theoretically allows students to determine which test date's set of scores to submit to colleges. However, this is a new option, and not all colleges will honor it. For example, Princeton, Penn, and Stanford have all released statements disallowing the use of SAT Score Choice for their applicants.

ACT essay prompts are more "student-friendly"

Essay prompts on the ACT tend to be concrete and relatable. Examples of ACT essay prompts are: "Should your school institute a dress code?" or "Should students be required to have a B+ G.P.A. to get a driver's license?" SAT prompts are more abstract. Typical SAT questions ask students whether they agree or disagree with broad statements, such as: "We live in two different worlds: an art world and a science world."

The ACT does not penalize students for guessing

The ACT does not penalize incorrect answers, meaning that students can guess on the test if they run short on time, or if they just don't know the answer to a question. In contrast, students lose a 1/4 point on the SAT for answering questions incorrectly.  Additionally, because three of the four sections of the ACT have four answer choices, a student has a 25% chance of getting a question correct (the ACT math section has five answer choices.) With five answer choices on the SAT, the student has only a 20% chance of correctly answering. As a result, the ACT may be a better test for weaker test takers or students who tend to run out of time when taking standardized tests.

Special considerations

Students who qualify for extended test-taking time have greater control over the use of that time when they take the ACT. For example, a student who has been granted 50% extended time will have five hours and 45 minutes to complete the entire test, and can determine how much time to spend on each section. If he or she is weak in math, he or she can spend more time on that section and less on a section where he or she is strong.  Conversely, each section of the SAT is timed, and students with extended time cannot carry over extra time from one section to another, making the ACT a better choice for these students.

So which test is the right test?

Every student is unique, and no standardized test can capture all of the individuality, complexity, and promise of your child. Consider your child's strengths and that the differences in formatting, time and content may mean that your child will score higher in one test than in the other. In the end, taking practice tests for both exams can help your child make the right decision for his or her unique circumstances.