Back in the day, where you wanted to go to college dictated which standardized test you took. Colleges in the midwest generally required the ACT, while those on the coasts wanted the SAT. These days, the score conversions are commonplace enough that most colleges will accept either one. So how do you choose which one to take? Well, there are a few differences to keep in mind.
Most of the differences between the tests are matters of format. The SAT is comprised of ten sections ranging from 12 to 35 minutes each. The sections alternate between reading comprehension, math, and writing, and the whole test begins with a 25-minute timed essay. One of the ten sections is an “experimental” section, which is not scored as part of your test and is a chance for the test-makers to try out new ideas on a group of students. The ACT, in contrast, is four 75-minute sections, one for each subject. The ACT does not include an essay, but it does include a “science” section (which is actually more about reading graphs and charts than it is about science).
Because of this, a student’s ability to focus might lean them towards one or the other. A common problem for SAT students is not being able to finish each section in time or having trouble switching topics so frequently, so if that sounds like you, you might consider trying out the ACT. The ACT on average gives you less time per question, but by putting all of the questions of a given subject into a single section it gives you more time to get into the groove of the subject. This makes the ACT a better choice for students who need longer stretches of time to do good work, while students with attention problems might do better on the SAT where the constant subject-switching will keep them alert.
Another format difference is the style of the ScanTron sheet itself. The SAT’s questions have five answer choices, labeled A, B, C, D, and E, while the ACT’s questions have four answer choices that alternate between A, B, C, D, and F, G, H, J. The ACT’s system can make it easier to keep from accidentally bubbling in the wrong question number, since if you picked A as your answer and the bubble says F, you know you’re in the wrong line. However, having longer sections means there’s more chance of filling in the wrong lines in the first place, as you’ll be bouncing around the section for longer. Some books recommend figuring out your answers on scratch paper and then transferring them to the ScanTron in groups of five, which would help avoid that danger. However, it does complicate the workflow a bit. Overall, the ACT requires you to be a lot more organized in your time-management and workflow strategies, while the SAT does most of that for you by giving you shorter sections.
Overall, scoring well on the SAT is less about knowing the material covered and more about knowing the strategies behind finding the correct answer. The SAT is more of a logic test than anything else, but the ACT relies a little bit more on actual knowledge of the material. The ACT also covers a bit more material – ACT math topics range up through basic trigonometry, while SAT math only covers geometry and basic algebra. This makes it a bit easier to come straight at the problems on the ACT and treat them more like you would any other test in school, but you do have to remember more material, while on the SAT you can often figure out the correct answer without even knowing the material itself.
A quick note: The SAT is undergoing a huge redesign in spring of 2016, and one of the changes that has been announced is a move towards more knowledge-oriented test questions. This would make the material on the SAT closer to that on the ACT. Stay tuned for updates as the new test is revealed!
The SAT takes away a quarter point for each incorrect answer, while the ACT simply gives zero points for incorrect. In practice, this means that blind guesses are penalized on the SAT but are a valid last-ditch strategy on the ACT. However, this is another thing that will change in the 2016 redesign; the SAT will no longer penalize for guessing. But if you’re taking the test before then, it’s definitely something to keep in mind. Once again the ACT requires a bit more self-motivated workflow, as the best strategy here involves taking one last trip through each section in the last two minutes to bubble in all of your wild guesses. In a longer section it can be tricky to remember to save time for that.
In general the ACT leaves much more of the planning and strategy up to the student, while the SAT helps you along a bit through its format. My advice is usually to take a practice test for both and see how you do. Don’t just look at your scores, though – think about how it felt to take each test. Were you panicking at the end of each SAT section because you ran out of time? Then maybe the ACT is for you. Were you fuzzing out in the middle of the marathon ACT sections and having trouble staying focused? Then maybe you should try the SAT instead.
Also, since the point of taking these tests is to get into college, be sure to do your research. Check out the colleges you’re interested in and see what they require for test scores. Most will take either test, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure. Also, some schools will allow you to submit individual subject scores from different test dates (the math from March and the reading from October, for example), while others need one complete test score from a single date. Some schools will tell certain degree candidates up front that they don’t care about a certain part, like an engineering department not caring about the writing section or a school not looking at the essay at all. (The essay is a particularly good example of this, as most schools require an admissions essay anyway and some will only care about that one.)
I tutor both SAT and ACT prep, so if you’re in need of some assistance don’t hesitate to contact me!