ACT or SAT? That is the Question

Decision photo


By Jean-Marie Gard; originally posted on Ready4  blog July 2016.

College visits, applications, and standardized tests, oh my! There are so many decisions facing college-bound juniors and seniors. It can be daunting! One of the predominant questions students ask is: ACT or SAT – which test should I take? Many students puzzle over this and really don’t know what to do. Stress! But, with some careful thought and planning, deciding which test to take can be much simpler.

The question that needs to be asked is this: “For which test are you better suited?” This blog post will help you digest the seemingly endless onslaught of information that is hurled at you during your golden years of high school.

The revamped SAT, also known as the new SAT, is actually very similar to the ACT with some key differences that could tip the scales in favor of one test over the other.

(1) A very fine place to start: Examine the tests!

In my experience tutoring dozens of students in test prep, many immediately form a strong opinion on test preference simply by looking at a practice test from both the ACT and SAT. The tests are presented differently and some students instinctively know which test they prefer. That isn’t you? No problem! Read on to see points of consideration when making your decision.

(2) Lost time is never found again, on the ACT that is.

One key factor that can make all the difference in deciding which test to choose: How quickly do you work?

The ACT has the reputation, rightly deserved, of being a fast-paced, breakneck-speed, multiple-choice test. The good news here is that all of the questions are multiple choice, which some students prefer. There are no student-produced responses. The following charts breakdown the average time allotted per question on each test. As you can see, the ACT is considerably faster, weighing in at 49 seconds per question vs. SAT’s 70 seconds. This factor alone can be the main reason a student leans in one direction or the other.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 3.44.02 PM

(3) Sit down with the Science

There is a rumor floating around town that the ACT science really doesn’t test science. Say what? Turns out – drum roll please – this rumor is essentially true! Some students who don’t consider themselves strong in science get scared off by the ACT. This should NOT be the case. Before you write off the ACT, take some time and sit down with the science! You may not mind it at after all.

If you are good at reading charts, analyzing tables, and digesting illustrations depicting science experiments, then you may like the science section. Take heart: the science section is visually stimulating, but once you get past the initial shock of all the diagrams, it’s not too bad! Really!

The science test focuses on topics from biology, chemistry, earth/space sciences and physics. Didn’t take physics yet? Have no fear! Again, the ACT science test can be aced with minimal science knowledge!

(4) ACT Reading vs. SAT Reading

Remember point 2 from this post? (If you don’t, scroll up.) Time plays a huge role on the reading sections of the ACT. As shown in the charts above, the allotted time per question on the ACT reading is far less than the allotted time per questions on the SAT – a difference of 22.5 seconds. That’s a lot of time!

The types of passages that are selected for both exams are similar. The SAT is comprised of passages taken from contemporary or classic literature, a U.S. founding document or text inspired by such, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. The ACT draws from similar sources with selections taken from the natural sciences, social sciences, literature, and history.

Okay, so the content is similar on both tests and the ACT is faster-paced. What else should you know about the reading?  The SAT questions that follow the passages are chronological. That is, they don’t force you to bounce back and forth around the passage. The first few questions generally refer to the first few paragraphs; the last few questions, the last few paragraphs. The questions go in order: seems logical. Not so on the ACT. The ACT reading questions are more random.

Another note: the SAT reading section will have a few charts or graphs to complement a passage or two. The questions related to the charts or graphs look similar to the ACT science section. This is due to the SAT’s attempt to incorporate more science into the entire test. You are likely more familiar with the fairly standard-looking ACT reading sections.

(5) Meet the Math

Perhaps the math sections are where you will see the most differences between the ACT and SAT. Here is a breakdown:

Key Differences in Math Sections

Pace Fast; 1 minute per question Not as fast; 1 minute 23 seconds per question
Calculator Allowed on entire math section Allowed on about ⅔ of the math questions; NOT allowed on about ⅓ of the questions
Question Types All multiple choice (5 choices) 45 multiple choice (4 choices);

13 student produced responses

Geometry Lots Not as Much
Formulas No Formulas Provided Many Formulas Provided
Data Representation Not Much (tested on science section instead) Lots

Another consideration, which perhaps is not as evident: The math problems that are on the SAT seem to involve more reading than the ACT math problems. Hey, that’s not fair! This is a math section after all, not a reading section. That’s the new SAT for you.

(6) Intending to write the Essay? Consider the following:

The essay is now optional on both tests! If indeed you are intending to write the ACT essay or the SAT essay, there are differences to the type of writing you will be asked to submit. You may have a strong preference for one essay over the other. Both tests administer the essays at the end of the test so those who opt out are free to go home. (Lucky them!)

The SAT essay gives you 50 minutes to read a passage and analyze the argument the writer makes. You are NOT asked to present your own argument in concordance or contrast with the writer’s argument. Rather, you essentially need to dissect the passage, using text and evidence to explain how the writer proves his/her point. Some students will naturally consider this type of writing easier. It doesn’t require you to come up with your own ideas and opinions since you are analyzing someone else’s opinion. It does, however, require more reading than the ACT essay. But, you are looking at one coherent essay, not many separate perspectives on the same issue as the ACT requires.

The ACT essay allows you 40 minutes to take a position in the writing “prompt.” This entails reading the 3 positions, deciding with which one you most agree or formulating your own position, and writing an essay to prove your position. This essay allows for your own ideas and opinions; it’s considered a persuasive essay. It may feel unfamiliar to many students but if you are a quick thinker and know history and current events well, you may be at an advantage on this essay. Also, if you aren’t a fan of having to first read a lengthy essay before you even begin to write, the ACT essay may be the way to go.

Why not take both tests?

Great question! The answer is, you can! Hurray! Free time on Saturday may be a thing of the past though…

While it is becoming more common for many students to take both tests, it is not always the best strategy. If you are a strong student with a high GPA, then taking both tests may be a good idea: you will get a good feel for which of the two tests you are better suited. I have some students who spend a lot of time preparing for both the ACT and the SAT. This is super time consuming and isn’t the best idea for everyone. In many cases, your time will likely be better served concentrating on your class work, working on college applications, participating in extracurricular activities, or – as crazy as it sounds – enjoying some free time! Remember, standardized tests are just one part of the complete picture. Play to your strengths!

A good approach, if you have the time, is to take a practice ACT exam in test-like conditions, and, on another day, take a practice SAT exam. Compare your results. (There are some online tools which will help you compare an ACT score with an SAT score.)

To help you decide, take this handy quiz!

Count how many times you prefer the right-hand column over the left:

I’m better at word problems. I’m better at geometry.
I work slowly on multiple choice tests. I work quickly on multiple choice tests.
It is difficult for me to memorize math formulas. It is easy for me to memorize math formulas.
When writing an essay, I prefer to read a passage first and use the text to analyze the author’s argument. When writing an essay, I prefer to argue my own point.
Doing math without a calculator is easy for me. I prefer to have a calculator for all math questions.
I enjoy reading. I enjoy science.
I am able to give evidence to support why an answer choice is correct. I often know which answer choice is correct, but am not always comfortable explaining why.
I prefer a combination of multiple choice questions and student-produced responses on standardized tests. I prefer all multiple choice questions on standardized tests.
I like to take my time when I am reading. I am a fast reader.

Tallying your Score

Now, for every time you chose the second column, give yourself one point. Give yourself zero points for each time you preferred the first column.

If you scored:

0 – 3 points: You’re an SAT person for sure!

4 – 6 points: Either test is likely suitable for you.

7 – 9 points: The ACT is your test!

Have you made a decision? Or do you feel better about the decision making process? Hope so!

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