How Do I Determine If I Should Take the ACT or the SAT?

How Do I Determine If I Should Take the ACT or the SAT?

19 February, 2021

By Dan Edmonds and Casey Loalbo

These days, one of the first questions I’ll hear from the frantic parent of a rising high school junior is, “should my child take the SAT or the ACT?” It’s a question that tends to cause both students AND parents lots of stress and worry.  Standardized testing is a complicated part of the already-complicated college admissions process. The good news is, there are some great ways to try to answer this question.  I’ll go over some of those ways below.

Interestingly, as recently as 10 years ago, almost no one wondered if they should take the SAT or ACT. Instead, in some parts of the country, you took the ACT. In others, you took the SAT. Almost no one gave the issue a second thought. Now that both tests are much more widely available, students all over have access to either test.  Still, it’s easy to feel like college might have a “favorite.” But I promise, colleges accept either test and do not prefer one over the other.

But as parents and students have become increasingly sophisticated about the college admissions process, many have started to make the decision between these two tests based on strategy, student strengths, and information instead of an accident of geography. Leading us to the question: How do you determine which test is the best fit for you?

The first piece of advice I always give concerned parents is pretty straightforward: The best way to determine which test is best for a given student is to have the student take both tests.  Yup! You read that correctly. Take a full SAT practice test and a full ACT practice test to best determine which test might be better for you.

Take Both Tests?

Students should take both the SAT and the ACT under real-life testing conditions.  This means a timed, proctored test in a classroom setting. Ideally, students should take real tests—actual, released SATs and ACTs that come from the makers of the exams (Collegeboard.org for SAT and ACT.org for ACT)—rather than fake tests made by test preparation providers. While there are many companies out there capable of producing pretty good fake tests, those tests are never quite the same, and the questions are not tested with the same level of rigor.  We want you to be able to get a clear and accurate picture of which test is best for you and that means taking real tests created by the makers of SAT and ACT.

After you get score reports from both tests, you can compare the results and see whether the student clearly favors one test over the other. If you are unsure about how to interpret the results, you can reach out to Noodle Pros for help. There are numerous ACT/SAT concordances online. I happen to prefer this one, though do note that if you use it, you are only counting the Reading and the Math score towards the SAT total score that will allow you to compare the scores. If the scores are roughly equivalent, then you should go with student preference, which may be impacted by some of the differences between the two tests, as listed below.  In other words, the student should go with the test that they felt most comfortable taking.

# Vocabulary

Vocabulary remains a significant factor on the SAT, directly tested in 19 of the 67 Reading questions, and often relevant in other questions. Vocabulary plays only a minor role in the ACT. Students with weak vocabularies might want to avoid the SAT.  On the other hand, if a student has a strong vocabulary and feels confident in their abilities, the SAT could be the right choice.  But for the purposes of this article, let’s pretend we are talking about a student who is not a fan of vocabulary and would prefer to avoid it!

Winner: ACT

# Science

The ACT has a so-called "Science" section. Granted, the section is actually more about your ability to read and interpret charts and graphs than about actual science, but more science-averse students may still find it challenging, and a few questions do require a bit of minimal science to know the answer. More science-averse students might prefer the SAT.

Winner: SAT

# Math

SAT math is trickier, but it tests easier content.  What I mean is that the wording of SAT questions tends to be a bit difficult to decode BUT the actual math content on the SAT is easier. The ACT math section tests harder content (including trigonometry, matrices, and imaginary numbers, none of which appear on the SAT), but it relies less on tricky wording for difficulty. While word problems and tricky wording appear on both tests, students are probably slightly better off with the ACT if they find word problems difficult.

Winner: ACT

# Reading Comprehension

The SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT, but it asks slightly harder questions. Luckily, for both the SAT and the ACT there are lots of helpful strategies to help with the reading comprehension section. As a result, students who can complete enough questions on the ACT usually find it to be the better choice, but students who have trouble with pacing may prefer the SAT.

Winner: SAT

# Writing and Grammar

The multiple-choice questions on the SAT Writing Section focus almost entirely on grammar and style (along with a very narrow range of punctuation). Meanwhile, the ACT brings in a lot more punctuation and a lot more editing questions. This requires that you understand the structured content of the tested passages. The ACT is probably easier for strong English students, whereas the SAT is easier to study for, as the range of tested content is more narrow.

As of January 2021, there is no longer an essay on the SAT.  The section was eliminated as a result of many colleges and universities no longer requiring students to complete SAT Writing in order to be considered for admission. The essay on the ACT is the last section and will be about a specific, concrete question, such as whether you should wear uniforms in school or whether there should be a minimum high school grade requirement to get a driver’s license.

If you are not a huge fan of essay writing, the SAT is best for you.

Winner: SAT

# Extra Time and Testing Accommodations

If you are a student who is eligible for testing accommodations on standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT then you have one more thing to consider as you attempt to decide which test is best for you. For the SAT, the most common timing accommodations on the SAT are either 1.5 time or double time. In both cases, the time is evenly distributed among all the sections. In other words, if you have 1.5 time, you get 37.5 minutes per section for the 25 minute sections, 30 minutes per section for the 20 minute section, and 15 minutes for the 10 minute section. There are no exceptions to this.

On the ACT, double time is practically unheard of. Students are most often granted 1.5 time, and the time is unstructured, meaning that they take the total amount of time allotted to all the multiple choice sections of the test, multiply that time by 1.5, and allow the student to distribute the time as he or she deems best. This means students can spend less time on a section that my come easier for them and save more time for a challenging section. The essay timing is calculated separately.

This probably makes the extended time version of the ACT more student-friendly compared to the extended-time version of the SAT, though there are many variations on these basic accommodations. In order to have a clear idea of which test would be better for a student eligible for testing accommodations, we’d need to consider the students specific accommodations.

Winner: Tie

# Which Test Do Schools Prefer?

Colleges and universities don’t prefer one test over the other; take whichever test you think is the best fit for you.  One more time for the people in the back: College and universities do not have a preference.  Taking the SAT instead of the ACT doesn’t give you a better chance at admission and vice-versa.  Use all of the information included in this article to your advantage and make an educated decision about which test you should take.

Winner: Tie

So Which Test Should I Take?

The very best way to determine which test to prepare for is to take one of each.  You can contact Noodle Pros if you need a place to take a timed, proctored ACT or SAT. If you don’t have time to do that, look at the differences I outline above and make your best guess at which you’ll like better. Start to study for that one until you have time to take one of each. It might seem really time consuming, but the payoff is a better ACT or SAT score, which will help strengthen your college application.

ACTSATSAT/ACTHigh School
About the Author
Dan Edmonds
Noodle Pro Dan Edmonds has 20 years of tutoring experience. He has led R&D for two major test prep companies, written or contributed to innumerable test prep and admissions books, trained or...
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