Applying for schools is stressful enough as it is, but choosing which standardized test to use for your application can make matters more difficult. Both the SAT and ACT are widely accepted across universities in the U.S., but they include some distinctive questions and are scored differently. The reality is that these test focus on similar skills, but the SAT focuses more on math than the ACT, as well as several smaller differences. Spending a little time with both before you decide will give you the best chances for admission to your dream college and save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Here are the 7 things you need to know before you choose between sat and act, and the one thing you should never do:
1. You should take both test before you make a decision
It seems like a given, but many students decide which test to take after just reading about them. This is a big mistake, as you will never really know what it feels like to take each test. More importantly, you won’t know how your individual strengths and weaknesses will show up on an SAT or ACT score. Taking practice timed-tests is essential before actually paying for the real test. Make sure you use official practice tests and problems, take it somewhere quiet enough to focus, and then give yourself the same amount of time per section as the real tests will. You can find the two most recent official ACT tests here and here. The 8 official SAT tests are at the bottom of this page. You can then compare your scores with this concordance table. Choose the test that shows you at your best!
2. Time per question varies
if you’re not the best at time management, or you take longer per question, the SAT may be for you. The ACT gives you about 53 seconds per question in reading, 36 seconds per question for English, 60 seconds per question for math, and 53 seconds per question for science. The SAT, on the other hand, gives you about 75 second per question for reading, and 48 seconds per question for the writing portion. No calculator math questions allow 75 seconds each, and for those with calculator you’ll get 87 seconds. You’ve probably noticed that the SAT always gives you more time per question. This doesn’t mean the SAT is easier, however. The SAT isn’t giving more time to be nice; SAT questions are generally a little more difficult than ACT questions.
3. The ACT has a science section
Though the ACT has an entire section called the “Science Test”, only a few questions directly test your science knowledge. The test is mostly data analysis and graph and chart comprehension. This section has 40 questions and you will have about 35 minutes, but it constitutes 25% of the overall score. If you like data analysis, this test is for you: you will have to analyze scientific data, hypotheses, and graphs in order to do well in ACT Science. Don’t be mistaken, however, as the SAT does have data analysis passages sprinkled throughout the test. You just won’t have a separate section for them. When you add up all the data analysis questions you’ll see on the SAT, it comes out to less than 10% of your total score.
4. Calculator use is limited in the SAT
If you’re not too comfortable answering math and problem solving questions on your own, the SAT may be problematic. The SAT has a section in its math portion that includes 20 questions with no calculator use, but it is only 25 minutes long. Remember that technically you can solve all math questions in both the SAT and ACT without a calculator, but if you’re not good at moving quickly and deducing answers, using a calculator on the sections that allow it is the smart thing to do.
5. Math is more important to your score on the SAT than the ACT
As mentioned previously, the SAT focuses heavily on math. The ACT math score only weighs in about ¼ of the final score, while the math section in your SAT is half of the total. You should really take the ACT if math isn’t your strong suit, and even if you’re good, but worry that it won’t be enough the ACT gives you a higher chance of scoring better if you are confident in the other sections.
6. Math concepts are different
Since the SAT focuses on math more heavily than the ACT, you should know that the concepts covered in this section also vary. Both the SAT and ACT include many algebra problems, but the ACT focuses more on geometry. Also, trigonometry is a bit more influential in your ACT score than the SAT one. Finally, the ACT also includes things like graphs for trigonometry functions and logarithms, which the SAT doesn’t have. The ACT might even have a basic matrix problem. The SAT is generally focused on algebra and data analysis for its math sections.
7. The SAT asks evidence-based reading questions
Evidence-support questions require you to find an answer by citing previous information given to you in a paragraph or passage. These questions can be complex, and they can include answers that seem right but are off by one small detail. The ACT, however, doesn’t include any evidence-based questions, and they will always be separate. The SAT can be confusing if you’re not keen on reading past passages and questions and connecting them to new ones, or haven’t become good at scrutinizing every word in an answer choice.
And finally… the one thing you should never do when choosing between the SAT and ACT:
Don’t pick a test because you think one school will prefer it over the other
While it is fundamental for you to know what your favorite schools want, they will never make a point of making you choose the SAT over the ACT, or vice versa. The truth is that making a decision because you think your desired school prefers it will hurt you in the end, as it will make you nervous, and sometimes that specific test isn’t even beneficial to your own learning style. Whatever you do make sure that you practice for each exam and then make your decision. No school will ever overlook your application because you sent in an exam score and not the other. If you take time and look over at the differences and similarities of both exams, you will choose the right one and do better, which your school will certainly appreciate.
These are the most important points that can help you decide what exam to take, but most students will have fairly similar performance between the two tests. Once you have picked the test for you, use this table to pick the best test date for your schedule. Keep in mind that you want to give yourself a chance to take the test a second time, so plan accordingly. Remember that though these tests are stressful for both students and parents, there are options to help you do better. Use timed practice tests, tutoring websites and tools, and compare your results in each test and each section. Give yourself plenty of time to begin practicing before you have to send off your applications, and once you find whether the SAT or ACT is better for you, focus your energy on practicing for it, and maybe taking it many times.