Because you probably have the option of taking either the SAT or ACT, you may be wondering which one you should choose. Taking both tests to hedge your bets may be for naught, because most colleges across the spectrum don’t have a preference. However, you may find one test suits you better than the other.
The best way to decide which test is right for you is to take a timed full-length practice test in each. Since the content and style of the SAT and ACT are very similar, factors like how you handle time pressure and what types of questions you find most challenging can help you determine which test is a better fit. For example, the pace of the SAT gives you a tad more time to think through problems, while the ACT can be more of a time crunch. Some students really thrive under the pressure of the clock, while others prefer the extra time to ponder a question.
It may seem obvious, but students who have a knack for test taking may do better on the SAT. It’s an analytical and reasoning test, and while you’ll definitely need to know how to use equations to survive the math section, you really can’t “study” for the SAT. You can practice taking the test, you can hone your vocabulary with flashcards, and you can read voraciously—arguably the best preparation for the SAT and highly recommended—but memorizing your textbooks won’t help.
But what if memorization is your thing? You might perform better on the ACT. If you’re the “nose-to-the-grindstone” student who studies like crazy, you could have an advantage when taking the ACT because it tests your knowledge. The ACT and SAT cater to different learning styles—one of the reasons two distinct exams exist.
Also, the more challenging your high school courses, the more likely you are to do well on the SAT. “Students who report that they are completing four or more years of English, three or more years of mathematics, three or more years of natural science, and three or more years of social science and history tend to perform better on the SAT,” Steinberg says. Indeed, it’s yet another reason to take the most rigorous curriculum you can handle in high school.
SAT or ACT? Do you know which test is right for you?
Colleges accept both tests equally, so the choice is up to you! The ACT and SAT generally test the same types of content. The biggest differences are that the ACT has a Science Test and the SAT has one Math section for which you cannot use a calculator.
According to The Pricenton Review, here’s what you need to know to compare the exams.
|Why Take It||Colleges use SAT scores for admissions and merit-based scholarships.||Colleges use ACT scores for admissions and merit-based scholarships.|
|Reading||5 reading passages||4 reading passages|
|Science||None||1 science section testing your critical thinking skills (not your specific science knowledge)|
|Calculator Policy||Some math questions don’t allow you to use a calculator.||You can use a calculator on all math questions.|
|Essays||Optional. The essay will test your comprehension of a source text.||Optional. The essay will test how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues.|
|How It’s Scored||Scored on a scale of 400–1600||Scored on a scale of 1–36|
Top SAT/ACT tips and strategies
Sure, you can pay for test prep services, but you can also prepare on your own, often for free or inexpensively. You can buy books of complete past tests, and taking them may help you determine your test-taking weaknesses. For example, if you struggled with the essay portion on a practice test, you can focus your test prep on drafting an outline and writing under time constraints.
Taking practice tests on your own or with a test prep class can also help you gauge your performance on the real deals. (or Taking the the PSAT, official practice test for the SAT, will also give you a sense of how you’ll do on the SAT. (The PSAT is doubly important, as it’s the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test too!) The results of these tests aren’t shared with your prospective colleges either, so you have nothing to lose by taking them.
But the best way to prepare for the ACT, Kappler says, is to simply be a good student. “Pay attention in class and take the right kinds of classes.” Okay, maybe easier said than done, but if you’ve been staying on top of your school work (or you’re committed to doing better), you’re already in a good position for taking the test. Kappler’s other tips include taking timed practice tests, getting a good night’s sleep, and eating breakfast the day of the test. That way, “you’re well rested and well fed and not sitting there grumpy.”
The College Board’s Steinberg echoes that sentiment. “The very best way students can prepare for the SAT is to do well in school, take rigorous courses such as AP or honors, and read as much as possible.” She also recommends taking practice tests and becoming familiar with the exam; you’ll find tons of helpful tips and resources on the College Board’s SAT practice page.
If you have learning disabilities, you can apply for test day accommodations for both the SAT and ACT, like extended time. Work with your guidance counselor and/or learning disabilities office to coordinate this well before you register for either test.
There are specific strategies for doing well on the tests too, like being able to make educated guesses. The SAT is scored a little differently from your standard pop quiz: each multiple-choice answer you get right is worth one point. Each wrong answer, however, deducts a fraction of a point. Skipped questions don’t count toward your score. So if you come to a question that really has you stumped, you can play the guessing game, but you need to play it right. That means reading the question thoroughly and trying to come up with an answer. Then, read the multiple-choice answers completely and try to eliminate any you know are wrong, thus increasing your odds of guessing correctly. Eliminating just one out of five possible answers makes you 5% more likely to guess the correct response. In this case, an intelligent guess is decidedly in your favor. If you can’t eliminate any choices, you are better off skipping the question. (A note about the Math section: you will not lose points for wrong answers on the grid-in questions. Give them your best shot, again, because you won’t be penalized for trying.)
The SAT also has “trap” answers: responses that look right but are oh so wrong. But knowing they exist (in every section except for Writing!) is half the battle. You can avoid the traps, in part, by staying calm. Falling into a trap answer is easier to do when you’re panicked, rushing through the test, desperate for an answer. Reading quickly and carefully is an important test-taking skill in general, as is maintaining focus. Also essential? A positive attitude. No, really. Some studies have shown that people with greater confidence in their ability to do well on tests tend to live up to those expectations.
Of course, you may be tempted to just keep retaking the tests until you get your dream score—not a great idea. Maybe you went into your first test day in a funk: you couldn’t sleep the night before, you weren’t feeling well, etc. If you think retaking the test(s) can improve your score, then go for it, but do not expect a miraculous change. According to the College Board’s website, 55% of students who retook the SAT as seniors improved their scores, 35% actually saw their scores drop, and 10% stayed the same. Among those seeing an increase, the average point gain was 40. Those who scored lower initially were more likely to improve their scores with a retake; conversely, the higher the initial score, the more likely the student was to experience a score drop the second time around.
Remember, the college search shouldn’t be a blind pursuit of a handful of “brand-name” institutions because that’s where you (or others) think you should go. This is your chance to find a school where you can really thrive academically and socially. And once you find schools that fit you—truly fit you—chances are your standardized test scores will fit too.