When you are trying to decide which test is a better choice, SAT vs ACT, it can be hard to know what the best choice is. The SAT and ACT tests both have pros and cons that need to be taken into account when making your decision. For example, the SAT has a math section that includes complex word problems while the ACT doesn’t do this. But, on the other hand, SAT questions require more reading than does an ACT question. One thing I’ve learned through my research is that there isn’t one clear answer about whether SAT vs ACT should be taken because these two exams are different in many ways!
Many people don’t know how these 2 tests actually work so we want to break them down in this article. Both the SAT and the ACT are run by organizations (College Board creates and administers the SAT & PSAT, the ACT organization creates and administers the ACT test). Although they are not-for-profits according to the IRS, I assure you, these “organizations” are very much run like corporations. The most important thing to remember is that they both have a very large sales and marketing team working for their organizations which effectively market their tests to state officials and school districts to have them push more students to their tests.
Before we tackle this somewhat challenging question, I want to preface that we will be sharing our professional views based on our observations with students we’ve worked with. We have been working in this space for over 30 years so we have a good idea of what we are talking about but what we will share with you is based on our opinions and the data we have with our clients, not based on the national average.
Ok, let’s begin dissecting each of these tests:
Similarities in the SAT vs ACT:
The idea behind both exams is the same….. to demonstrate college readiness in each student who takes the test. But despite similar goals, the tests have varying structures as well but we will get into those later on in this article.
Some may argue (WE are some of those people) that these tests reflect the student’s college readiness or academic prowess but the organizations both remain steadfast that their tests are the best way to measure a student’s abilities for the colleges.
Some fast similarities:
- Both have same amount of test dates
- Both offer fee waivers
- Both are offered to foreign students at approved testing centers
- Both are offered for all United States high school students
- Neither test penalizes wrong answers
- Both are considered college admissions tests to US colleges
- Both have multiple composite score
- Both rely on time limits- time pressure is a real challenge
- Both offer late fees for busted deadlines
- Both are reasoning test not based on high school curriculum
According to statistics from both organizations, the average SAT test score for 2020 high school graduates was 1051, and the average ACT score was 20.6. Below is a chart that shows equivalent SAT & ACT scores for each other the tests:
Key Differences in the SAT vs ACT:
Although there’s about an 80% cross-over between the 2 standardized tests (the College Board hired on most of the ACT’s writing staff back in 2015) there is still a major difference between the SAT and ACT. Actually, there are many major differences to be exact.
- They have a different overall score: ACT is out of 36 (perfect score); SAT is out of 1600 (perfect score)
- ACT science section only
- SAT math section is broken up into 2 different parts- With a calculator and no-calculator math section
- SAT offers a formula reference guide whereas the ACT does not
- Although both the SAT and ACT math sections focus primarily on algebraic concepts, the ACT also offers a significant geometry focus as well as logarithms, matrices, and trigonometry functions.
- The SAT has many multiple-choice options in their math section however, they do offer one section called grid-ins or student-produced response questions.
- The ACT is now the only test that offers the optional essay. SAT has officially stopped issuing this option.
More Subtle Differences:
- The SAT only offers 4 answer choices as opposed to the ACT that offers 5 multiple choice answers when it comes to the math sections. This helps if you are taking the test strategically because it’s one less answer you have to consider.
- On the SAT reading, the questions are always given chronologically. The ACT can be random in their questioning.
- Although the tests are roughly the same amount of time in total with the SAT having a bit overall extra time (2 hours 55 minutes ACT and 3 hours for the SAT) the time allowed for each question is pretty different. Remember, the ACT has an additional section on the test with science so altogether, you have less time per section for the ACT questions.
Which test should you take?
The short answer is both. Take both if you have the ability to do so. If you don’t have the time to take both, go to www.collegeboard.org and www.act.org and take their practice tests. Treat them as if you are taking them for record. Time yourself, and don’t allow yourself to cheat. Again, take them as if you are taking the actual test at a testing center. Once you have done this, tally up your total score and see which test is a better fit. There’s always a preference for most students. Gut check and ask yourself which you would rather tackle. This is a strategy ONLY if you don’t have the time to take both tests for record.
Now, we want to give you some statistics that we have found over the last 30 years of college counseling. Our students tend to gravitate towards and do better on the ACT over the SAT. One of the reasons we feel that the ACT might be a little easier for many of our students is because it is a more straightforward test. SAT test writers tend to be a little trickier when they write their tests. According to our students, they often add more questions that are designed to confuse the student leaving them to have to reread the question multiple times in order to understand what they are asking for.
If you are a senior or late junior, our recommendation is to utilize the sample questions or full-length practice test first, take these tests as if you were taking the test for record, and see which you prefer. If you have more time, take the actual SAT and ACT test, get your test scores and determine from there which you want to focus on. If you’ve read any of our other articles, you know that we always recommend starting early so you can figure out the best path for you to take. We have 7th graders preparing for these tests! It’s never too early to get ahead. If you do not want to prepare at all and just want to know which test to take, our opinion would be ACT. Students typically have an easier go at it especially if they only can take it once.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, please get yourself into a formal test prep (shameless plug for ours). Going in prepared for these tests will open up so many college opportunities you never knew existed.