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The SAT versus the ACT

Previous sections focused on the SAT, the most commonly recognized and widely used standardized college entrance exam. However, there is a second standardized college entrance exam: the ACT. In this section, I’ll explore the differences between the SAT and the ACT and offer some guidelines for deciding which test to take.
From the standpoint of a college admissions officer, the SAT and the ACT are virtually identical. That is, most colleges—including all of the most selective schools and the UCs—do not prefer one test over the other. So students who need to decide which test to take should take the admissions office out of the equation. “Either is fine with us,” says Marilyn McGrath-Lewis, Director of Admissions at Harvard University, “and we don’t have a feeling that either favors students with any particular profile.”

Geography Plays A Role: SAT vs ACT

Historically, most students on the West Coast, East Coast and in Texas took the SAT, while the majority of Midwestern students took the ACT.

But this geographical distribution has fluctuated in recent years as the ACT steadily gained in popularity nationwide. For the past seven years, the ACT was the most widely taken standardized test, with 1.9 million U.S students sitting for the ACT in 2018. Although the SAT just recently surpassed these numbers, with 2 million U.S. students taking the SAT in 2018, the ACT still proves popular in many geographic regions and both tests have become increasingly similar since the SAT re-design in 2016.

The most important factor in determining whether a student should take the SAT or the ACT is actually quite simple.

Students should take the test that best caters to their strengths! The SAT and the ACT each favor different learning styles and test-taking techniques.

Therefore, it is very possible that a student who does not do so well on the SAT may excel on the ACT—and vice versa. In order to help students figure out which test better suits them, it’s helpful to understand three major differences between the two tests:

  1. Testing philosophies and approach: testing for critical reasoning and in-depth application for the SAT; quick recall and basic application for the ACT.
  2. Individual section length.
  3. The ACT assumes slightly more mathematical background and knowledge of formulas; it also has a Science section.

SAT vs ACT: Assessing different skills

As mentioned in my prior post, the SAT is testing critical thinking and reasoning, whereas the ACT has always been a test of recall and high-school knowledge. To show how this might play out in the specific questions, I will give an example to demonstrate.

The Reading sections on both the ACT and SAT ask evidence-based questions based on passages provided. However, the SAT will require a student to not only identify the correct answer from a given passage, but also identify the evidence for that answer, via additional follow-up questions.

The ACT, by contrast, may ask a student an evidence-based question and then to identify the answer they can prove as correct. Each subsequent question will be unrelated to the previous, so there are not follow-up, related questions, and these may appear in random order, regardless of their chronology in the passage.

Thus, the SAT requires more in-depth reasoning on a series of questions about a passage, which requires a student to consider all the answer choices as possibilities. This can be tricky and time-consuming when under the pressure of a timed test.

Which leads me to my next point: the time-per-question on both tests is not an equitable comparison.

SAT vs ACT: Section Length

With the optional Essay section, the SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes, and the ACT is a total of 3 hours and thirty-five minutes, so quite comparable in overall duration. While both tests now have only four sections (five, including the writing section), their length varies, with the ACT giving less time per question overall, resulting in a much faster-paced exam. If broken down to time-per-question, the SAT offers a more forgiving time frame to answer: about 75 seconds per question in the Reading section compared to the ACT’s 53 seconds per question.

So while it is true that the SAT may give more time per question, remember the previous section about the difference between the types of questions.

The SAT gives more time because it requires more work per question and is more conceptual, while the ACT gives less time per question because there is less in-depth work per question. A student who can rely on their quick recall and endure long tests with consistent focus and without distraction would have a huge advantage on the ACT. Conversely, the SAT may cater to the student who understands text analysis and can swiftly identify evidence and its context to prove a specific claim.

Each student should consider which test format is better suited to his or her test-taking time management skills, yes, but also take into account which tests cater to his or her strengths in regards to depth of reasoning as well.

SAT vs ACT: Math section content and Science section

The SAT and ACT Math sections cover very similar material, including Arithmetic, Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Trigonometry. However, the ACT has slightly more advanced questions in regards to Geometry and Trigonometry, and furthermore has a higher quantity of questions related to advanced math concepts. In addition, the ACT allows calculator use on all Math sections, whereas the SAT allows a calculator on only one part of its Math Section.

Be aware that a calculator isn’t required for use on any section of the SAT or on the ACT, nor is it necessary to solve the questions on either test. Questions are designed to be solved without a calculator, so students are being tested on both math reasoning skills and prior math knowledge.

Furthermore, while the SAT offers several geometry formulas and laws at the beginning of the Math section, the ACT offers no helps, so those students who might need help remembering those basic formulas might do better with the Math section on the SAT. However, both ACT and SAT Math sections will require some basic formula memorization that are not provided on either test. Lastly, ACT’s Math section does account for only one-fourth of the final composite score, whereas the SAT’s Math score is one-half the total score.

So the bottom line is: while the ACT might have more advanced Math concepts being tested, the score on that particular section weighs much less in the final score than on the SAT. Additionally, the ACT includes a Science section. This is not an information-based exam in the same way that the SAT Subject Tests or AP Exams in the sciences are. Rather, the ACT checks a student’s ability to analyze charts, for example, or otherwise engage in scientific reasoning through various passages.

In other words, students do not need an advanced science background to successfully answer the questions on the Science portion of the ACT. The SAT does include some natural science and social science concepts in various questions on both the Reading and Writing & Language sections, similarly assessing the use of graphs and charts.

While both tests may have these science-related passages, testing comparable chart and graph-reading reasoning abilities, the ACT’s Science section counts towards one-fourth of your final score, whereas the SAT’s science-related passages are folded into the Reading and Writing & Language portions of the test.

SAT vs ACT: A Roundup

The information given above can help students evaluate whether they are better suited for the ACT or the SAT, but the most accurate way for students to figure this out is for them to come in to a FLEX center and take both a diagnostic SAT and a diagnostic ACT under simulated test conditions.

Many tutoring centers, including FLEX, offer free diagnostic testing. It is important for students to figure out which test is right for them early on—ideally, I recommend that students take diagnostic tests early on in their sophomore years—so they can tailor their test prep accordingly. In some cases, however, it might be worth a student’s while to take both the SAT and the ACT.

Example: Diane took the SAT and ACT

For example, one student I knew, Diane, took SAT classes for six months and raised her score almost 240 points, eventually scoring 1380 on the actual exam. Although she dramatically improved her score, she felt she hadn’t realized her potential and thought she’d be able to substantially raise that score in subsequent exams. However, we counseled her to take a stab at the ACT instead. The ACT really catered to Diane’s strengths, and she received a 33: the equivalent of a 1510 on the SAT!

Example: Diane’s friend, Tara, took the SAT but not the ACT

Now compare Diane’s friend, Tara. Tara also took the SAT when Diane did, but Tara received a 1430 on her first attempt. Satisfied with this score, she never retook the test or tried the ACT.

Apart from their standardized test scores, the girls were virtually identical. Their GPAs were nearly equivalent and their course selection very similar. Their activities were also comparable; if anything, Tara’s activities were slightly stronger than Diane’s. However, when the college admissions letters came back, Diane got into a bunch of schools that Tara was rejected from, including Boston College and NYU. Why? Tara had the higher SAT score but Diane had the higher standardized test score overall.

Deciding whether to take the SAT or the ACT is a very personal choice. Students shouldn’t be affected by local trends; they should rely on accurate diagnostic testing and find the test that best showcases their strengths.