ACT or SAT? Five Tips to Pick the Right College Entrance Exam3 min read

ACT or SAT
This is a question every student and parent should ask themselves before beginning the preparation process for a college entrance exam.

The SAT and ACT are both respected, nationally-recognized tests. Historically, there’s been a geographic divide between the two; nowadays, very few colleges require or prefer one test over the other. So which one should you take? Well, since you can’t really say one test is any easier than the other, that all depends on your skills and preferences. Basically, you should go for the one you’ll score higher on!

sat v act
The above map illustrates the geographic tendencies of test takers; you’ll notice the East and West coasts, and Texas, prefer the SAT, and the center of the country prefers the ACT. (source – www.studypoint.com)

Here are some tips to help you make your decision:

1. Who says size doesn’t matter?

The ACT is a shorter test. The SAT takes a whopping 3 hours, 45 minutes, while the ACT comes out to a hefty 2 hours, 55 minutes (if you elect not to take the optional 30 minute Writing test), making the SAT about 30% longer than the ACT. Either way, you’re stuck taking a long test. If you have a ridiculously short attention span, then the ACT might be right for you, but realistically, after nearly 3 hours, why sweat an extra 50 minutes?

2. When in doubt, just guess… right?

The SAT has a guessing penalty – minus a quarter of a point for each incorrect response. Not so with the ACT. Guess away! So you should answer every question on the ACT, but on the SAT, you should just leave the answer blank when you can’t eliminate at least one answer choice. Does this make the SAT “harder”? Not really. With the right strategies, you can even make the SAT’s guessing penalty work to your advantage.

3. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superscore!

The SAT reports each of your three “subscores” separately-one each for critical reading, writing, and mathematics. So, many colleges will combine your best three subscores from all the times you’ve taken the SAT to make a “superscore.” In the past, schools would not do this with the ACT. Recently, however, many schools have begun to make ACT “superscores” too.

4. What is the difference anyway?

Both tests have a grammar, reading comprehension, essay and math portions. The ACT has an extra “science” section, but don’t worry. I used quotes because it’s really just another test of your reasoning skills – not much chemistry, physics or biology knowledge needed. Broadly speaking, the ACT tests skills that you (should have) learned in high school, while the SAT tries to evaluate your innate problem-solving abilities.

For example, the ACT math section tests a few topics that typically aren’t covered until pre-calculus. While the SAT leaves out these topics, its math problems generally have more complicated setups.

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The ACT’s essay is optional, but some colleges require it anyway. Its essay topics are always questions of school policy, while the SAT’s essays deal with more abstract moral or philosophical issues.

In the critical reading sections, the SAT’s vocabulary is harder, but the ACT taxes your critical reading and analysis skills. The ACT English section gives you a couple of long passages with grammar and critical reading questions mixed together; the SAT tests reading and grammar separately.

5. You can’t know if you like it till you’ve tried it!

How do I know which test is better for me? Try them! Take some free practice tests online and see which one fits your fancy. Both the SAT and ACT offer practice questions or tests on their official websites.

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Want to know more about the SAT and ACT? Check out the College Compass Standardized Tests page!

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