The SAT announced it will be changing to an online format in 2024, but current students and their families are still faced with two paper-and-pencil exams: ACT and SAT. These college admissions tests are similar, but most of my clients want to know which test is better.
I answered this question in an article in 2016, but as the admissions landscape fluctuates and changes are made to testing, I wanted to offer an updated response.
My answer is still from the perspective of an instructor. Which test is more coachable? Which test will offer the most benefits to my students with the fewest drawbacks? Which test will allow my students to score more?
So which test is best? There isn’t a simple answer. Let’s look at some facts students and parents should consider when making their own evaluations.
What Do Colleges Want?
From the perspective of colleges and universities, it doesn’t matter. In admissions, the SAT and ACT are viewed as equals with no preference given to one test over another. All colleges asking for test scores for admissions or scholarships will accept either exam.
Yes, you may see a school publish SAT and not ACT scores (or vice versa), but that is based on the data at hand, not an institutional preference. If 75% of students applying to Big U submit SAT scores, Big U will publish the average SAT scores of its students and may not include ACT results due to a lack of data.
The main point is that colleges and universities don’t care. So students should focus on their preferred exam.
Coke vs. Pepsi
I have often said that choosing between the SAT and ACT is like the choice between Coke and Pepsi.
Both drinks are colas. Both are manufactured by huge corporations intent on marketing their products worldwide. Often the choice comes down to personal preference or availability.
The ACT / SAT choice is no different. Both tests are multiple-choice exams for college admission. Both are produced by large corporations who promote their product to schools and consumers worldwide. Like the cola market, there have been some regional biases. I live in Texas, traditionally an SAT state. But don’t let old biases make you think one test is superior.
Often choice comes down to personal preference and sometime which test fits into a busy student’s schedule.
From a distance the SAT and ACT appear very similar. Both include passage based reading and grammar questions and math problems. Students are not penalized for wrong answers on either test.
Both assessments are constructed to make it very challenging to earn top scores. Most test takers will find themselves somewhere in the middle of the pack with fewer students earning very high or very low marks. This means it is highly unusual for a student to excel on one test and struggle on the other. Most students will have comparable results regardless of the test they take.
Here’s the key issue– sometimes a slight improvement in scores is all a student needs for admission or scholarship consideration. This is where focusing on the right test is important. If you can do slightly better on one exam, it is important to figure that out before you invest time and money studying for the test that doesn’t match your strengths.
When you are choosing the best exam for something as important as college admission, little differences are important. Here are some of the top differences:
- The SAT is 50% math. This may be an advantage for students who excel in the math tested.
- SAT math is harder (more advanced Algebra concepts and tricky question types). Students who are not super stars of math may prefer the more straightforward challenges of ACT math.
- SAT reading tests more vocabulary and analysis– concepts that are harder to teach.
- ACT reading and science sections are difficult for some students to finish. Even with practice, some test takers will not be able to complete enough problems to meet their score goals.
Grammar (English / Writing)
SAT writing looks almost exactly like ACT English. Both require students to edit the grammar and usage in paragraphs. The error types tested are similar, so students need a solid foundation in grammar, usage, and elements of good writing for either test. I teach the same content whether my student is taking the ACT or SAT, so consider these equivalent.
The SAT continues to test more college-bound vocabulary than the ACT. Students with exceptional vocabularies may prefer the SAT.
SAT reading seems to test a more analysis while ACT reading has more questions that test whether you can find the specific answer in the passage (a difference of finding versus thinking and processing.)
Both tests truly come down to issues of speed for most students because the ability to read challenging material and pay attention to detail is harder when you are racing the clock. I find the ACT Reading to be more straightforward, but it allows less time per question than the SAT. Some students may be forced to focus on the SAT if they cannot finish enough of the ACT reading section to meet their score goals.
In general, both math sections are challenging, but ACT math is more straightforward.
SAT math is harder and tests more advanced concepts. Additionally, SAT math included a no-calculator section and problems where students must produce their own answer. The ACT is all multiple-choice and allows calculators on all math problems.
Seemingly, one downside to ACT math is that no formulas are provided. Student must memorize equations for things like the circumference and area of a circle, but there are an equal number of formulas SAT testers should memorize, so this isn’t a deciding factor.
High scoring math students may prefer the SAT. 50% of their SAT score is math. The impact of a near-perfect math score on the SAT isn’t diluted down by averaging it with three other subjects (like it would be in calculating an ACT composite score.)
Only the ACT has a section devoted to data interpretation. This section is called science, but could more accurately be called “reading charts & graphs.” In order to compete, the SAT has included chart and graph questions in the reading and grammar sections.
Because success on these questions is more of a skill than a test of knowledge, I find the science section to be very coachable. The one downside to science is time. Like reading, some students will find it difficult to finish enough questions in the time allowed.
Students receive two scores on the SAT
- Evidenced Based Reading and Writing
While it is pretty common to add scores together, they are still viewed as two separate scores by colleges.
In contrast, students receive a single composite ACT score, which is the average of the scores earned on the four sections of the test. Because colleges see the average, students who struggle in one area have a chance to improve their overall score by earning more points in their stronger subjects.
There are cases in which the scoring methodology can make one test the clear choice.
Consider the student who is exceptional in reading and writing, but average in math.
- Reading & Writing 800 (perfect score)
- Math 500
- English 36 (perfect score)
- Math 21
- Reading 36 (perfect score)
- Science 29 *
*Science on the ACT does not require calculations and in many ways is like reading, but with charts and graphs.
This student’s SAT total (1300) is the equivalent of a 27 on the ACT according to the score concordance table provided by College Board. However, this student earned a score of 31 on the ACT. One low section on the ACT is less detrimental because there are three other sections to help average out the total score.
If you are still unsure which exam might be best for you, there are a couple other factors to consider.
- The current exams are similar in format and structure. Both are about three hours long and have four graded sections. One structural difference that stands out to me is the SAT’s passage-heavy first half. Too many students suffer from fatigue after doing 100 minutes of intense passage-based reading on the SAT. The order of the sections on the ACT, in contrast, offers a little relief as students switch from English (writing editing) to math to reading and finally to science.
- Ultra-high scoring test takers will likely take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year to compete for National Merit Scholarships. This recognition only comes from taking the PSAT, so these students should prepare for the PSAT and SAT at the same time because they are almost identical tests.
- Extended time testers may prefer the ACT. Both SAT and ACT provide testing accommodations for students who already receive them at school. The most common accommodation is extended time. Recently ACT has made changes to it’s extended time administration that might make a difference for some test takers. Students who have accommodations at school showing a need for
- extra time
- the need to limit testing to a few hours / break up exams over multiple days
may be able to get special testing through ACT which allows them to use their extended time over multiple days. This can be significant for students with focus issues or physical conditions that make sitting through more than three hours of testing problematic.
More Coachable Exam
Part of my perspective is to find the exam that is more coachable. In other words, if you are going to spend any time and money on improving scores, which test favors your efforts?
Currently I find the most coachable section of all tests to be the ACT science section. With a few strategies and some practice, I can help students earn more points. In contrast, it is much harder to coach the type of reading analysis found on the SAT, particularly if a student hasn’t developed this type of thinking after years of high school work.
While the content on the ACT is more coachable, one difficulty some students will face is time. Yes, I can help students improve their pacing and focus on the most do-able questions, but it is difficult to make a slow test taker into one that can easily finish within the time limits.
How to Decide
Maybe you’ve noticed how each section above seems to say, “This test, but…”
That’s the difficulty in trying to make a universal recommendation. Often the difference comes down to personal preference. Here are some practical considerations to guide your decision:
- Compare scores from previous or practice tests. You can use this concordance table from ACT.
- If you haven’t taken either test, obtain an official full-length practice test at no cost from your guidance counseling office at school or print them [full official tests here.]
- Does one test offer a better format? Was the content of one test more familiar?
- Consider test prep factors. Does one test / class better meet your schedule? Check for conflicts with school holidays, sports or extracurricular, and family activities.
Obviously you should focus on the test that lets you score higher. Unless your previous scores say otherwise, go with your gut. Take the test that feels most comfortable to you.
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