SAT vs. ACT – Which one is better for my child?

When your child is ready to apply to colleges, many parents assume the SAT test is the only way to go. However, depending on the student, the ACT might be the better choice – either as an alternative, or in addition to the SAT. At Apt Tutoring & Test Prep, we can help navigate the best route for your child.

The ACT test has many little-known benefits:

The ACT test is shorter.

The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes. The ACT is 3 hours and 25 minutes.

The ACT has a predictable format.

The five sections of the ACT test are always in the same order: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing (essay). The SAT, on the other hand, begins with the essay and ends with a short writing section, but the order of the other sections can vary. In addition, the SAT always includes an “experimental” section. This section doesn’t get calculated into the score, but the student never knows which one it is. For many students, the predictability of the ACT test can help alleviate test anxiety.

The ACT essay prompts may be easier for some students.

ACT prompts are typically centered on topics of interest to high school students. Examples include: “Should your school institute a dress code?” or “Should students be required to have a B+ average to get a driver’s license?” In contrast, the SAT typically asks students to agree or disagree with a more esoteric statement, such as “We live in two different worlds: an art world and a science world” or “Are other people necessary for self-understanding?” For most students, it’s easier to write on a topic that is personally engaging.

The ACT doesn’t penalize you for guessing.

While the SAT deducts ¼ point for each incorrect answer, students are not penalized for wrong answers on the ACT. It simply isn’t calculated into your final score. Furthermore, since three of the four ACT sections (except for math) offer four possible answers, as opposed to five on the SAT, students have a better chance of guessing correctly if time runs short.  

Some colleges do not require the SAT subject tests when a student submits ACT scores.

Although the number of colleges that accept the ACT Plus Writing Test in lieu of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests has decreased in recent years, there are still some that do including Amherst, Brandeis and the University of Pennsylvania. 

Many colleges may be more lenient with ACT scores than with SAT scores.

SAT scores influence college ranking in US News & World Report, but ACT scores are not included in determining rank. Therefore, many counselors believe this makes a school more willing to accept a student with a lower ACT score than a lower SAT score.

Students decide how to use extended time on the ACT.

A student who has been granted extra time on the ACT test is allowed to determine the pacing and decide how best to allot that time. If you are weaker in math, you can spend more time on that section and less on your stronger subjects. The SAT, on the other hand, has a set time for each section. If you finish one section quickly, you can’t use that extra time for another section.

More colleges honor ACT Score Choice than SAT Score Choice.

In 2011, the College Board instituted Score Choice which gives students control over which test dates' scores are sent to colleges. The ACT, however, has always given students this option. Although the majority of colleges honor Score Choice, some highly selective colleges do not, insisting that all scores be submitted. There are some colleges that have different policies for the SAT and ACT. Yale, for example, requires that applicants submit all SAT scores. For the ACT, however, applicants can decide which test dates' scores to send and which not to. In short, for many colleges, students have more control over submitting their ACT than their SAT scores.

SAT
ACT
Implication
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.