For several decades, taking the SAT or ACT exam has been a rite of passage for college-bound high school students. As a student, you understand the need to perform well on the exams because your score is among the factors that determine whether you’ll be admitted to the colleges of your choice. Your scores, along with GPA and class rank, comprise your academic record — the dominant factor in admissions.
Because most institutions accept both SAT and ACT scores, there’s no reason to prefer one exam to the other. This leaves the choice up to you. Selecting the right one matters in your college admission plan.
Circumstances That May Affect Your Choice
The two exams are very similar but they do have differences. Before we consider them, let’s review a few circumstances that may make your choice easier.
- Test-Optional – Over 1,000 institutions have adopted test–optional policies under which you don’t need to submit exam scores to a college unless you choose to. However, Klaar College Consulting recommends that you take one of the exams even if it isn’t necessary. Then, compare your score to the previous freshman classes of each college that interests you. If your score might help you gain admission at some of them, then submit it to those schools.
- State Requirements – There are 21 states (see Table A, below) that require 11th graders to take the SAT or ACT to assess academic progress. State education administrators observed that juniors were studying for so many standardized tests that it inhibited their ability to learn their coursework. Since many students were taking the SAT or ACT for college admission, the states decided to use them for assessment instead of another exam. We advise students in states that administer the ACT for assessment to take the ACT for score improvement if necessary. Likewise for students in SAT states.
Table A, below, lists the states that administer the SAT or ACT to juniors for academic assessment purposes:
Table A: States That Use SAT or ACT for Assessment
|District of Columbia||Mississippi|
|New Hampshire||North Carolina|
- Take Both Exams – There are students who take both exams and then submit their best scores. This is an extreme measure but perhaps not as extreme as you may think. As mentioned above, the exams are similar and, for the most part, studying for one is studying for the other. There are those exceptional students who can study for both exams without impacting their GPA, but the great majority of students are advised to stick with one exam.
Key Differences Between the Exams
1. The SAT has a 20-question section in which you aren’t allowed to use a calculator. The answers are to be derived by reasoning. The ACT allows a calculator on all Math questions.
2. The ACT has more questions about geometry than the SAT. The ACT also has a few questions in other areas that the SAT doesn’t, such as logarithms, matrices, and trigonometry.
3. The SAT provides you with math formulas but the ACT doesn’t. If you take the ACT, you need to memorize formulas that may be on the test.
4. On the ACT, Math accounts for one-fourth of your total score. On the SAT, Math accounts for half of your total score.
5. The tests differ in the number of answers provided for multiple-choice questions. ACT Math gives you five possible answers. SAT Math gives you four.
6. The ACT Math questions are all multiple choice. The SAT is mostly multiple choice, but has questions for which you write in the answers.
Time: The total time allowed for the exams is almost equal, but the SAT gives more time to answer each question because there are fewer of them.
Science: The ACT devotes a section to science but the SAT doesn’t. The SAThas science questions, but they’re interspersed through the exam. There’s a separate science score for the ACT but not for the SAT.
Essays: If you take the essay, your approach to writing it will differ. On the SAT, you’ll have a passage to read and analyze. Your essay will examine the author’s argument using evidence and reasoning. You won’t be arguing your personal opinion. On the ACT, your task is different. You’ll read a passage about an issue and then analyze various perspectives on it. But, unlike the SAT, you’ll incorporate your own opinion in your answer.
Other Methods of Comparison
Perhaps the best way to compare the exams is to take practice tests. The SAT and ACT organizations make practice tests available as do many test prep publications. Compare your results and decide if there’s a clear winner.
Another way to pick the right test is to respond to these statements as true or false.
- I have trouble with geometry and trigonometry.
- I can solve certain math problems without a calculator.
- I do well on math tests.
- I find it hard to memorize math formulas.
- I can answer certain math questions in my own words.
- The sciences are not my best subjects.
- I can analyze a passage easier than I can articulate my opinion.
- I find that short time constraints cause me anxiety.
- I have no trouble citing evidence to back up my positions.
If most of your answers are “True,” then the SAT exam is better for you. If most of your answers are “False,” then the ACT is better.
If you’d like help deciding whether the SAT or ACT is the right choice for you, please email me at [email protected] or call me on 803-487-9777.