The Ivy Coach Daily

September 21, 2023

SAT vs. ACT: How To Decide Which Test to Take

A young woman in a green shirt takes an exam with overlayed text that reads, "America's elite colleges have gone test-optional. It's not what it's cracked up to be. Students who submit top scores will always enjoy an advantage."

Previously Published on February 22, 2023:

Are you trying to figure out if the SAT or ACT is better suited for you? Long gone is the era when students on America’s coasts took only the SAT and students in the middle of the country took only the ACT — and long gone is the era when universities preferred a particular exam based on its geography.

Nowadays, America’s top universities accept both exams. But which test suits whom? Is there any advantage to taking one test over the other? Or should students hedge their bets and take both?

Since colleges regard them equally, you’d be correct to guess that there’s a lot that is the same between the two exams. Great, you earned a point for that!

How to Decide Between the ACT and the SAT: A Step-by-Step Approach

1. Block off your needed test time.

A solid three and a half to four hours of uninterrupted time, preferably in the morning (the time you would be taking an actual SAT or ACT). Plan your tests for two days, preferably several days apart, to avoid test fatigue!

2. Turn off all electronic devices.

Notify family members to keep quiet and not disturb you for the entire test time.

3. Have light refreshments for breaks.

A glass of water and a small snack should be available for one or two 5-minute intervals, but nothing to eat or drink while working on the test.

4. Use official practice tests only.

You can download and print them from The College Board and ACT, Inc.’s websites. Do not do the test on the computer if you will be taking it on paper!

5. Make it like the real thing!

Use a #2 pencil and the bubble sheet that matches the test. Use a watch or timer, answer all questions, and time it strictly. You can have a parent proctor you to up the stress level to a facsimile of test day!

6. Compare the results using a Concordance Chart.

Mark your errors on each test, score the tests and compare to see which test rewards your strengths more and which you feel you can improve on the most.

7. Choose one!

In any case, choose one test! At Ivy Coach, we advise students to pick one test and prepare well. Note, too, that college admissions officers may look askance at too many test scores on an application, wondering why this student has yet to find other things to do with their time. Students tend to take whichever test is prevalent at their school, but the key consideration should be which test a student can score higher on, and that’s the end of the story!

The SAT vs. ACT: Top 10 Key Differences

1. In the U.S., while the SAT is going digital, the ACT has yet to announce such plans.

In the coming year, the SAT will complete the rollout of its revamped exam in digital format. But until spring 2024, students taking the SAT in the U.S. can breathe easy: their SAT will be the current test format, given on paper and supported by established study materials.

2. ACT has a Science test; SAT doesn’t.

The most significant difference between the two tests is that the ACT has a Science section. This section is challenging not because it tests hard science topics (it doesn’t do so) but because it’s timed to force the test-taker to rush. There’s simply no time to study each of the six passages carefully and thoughtfully to address the 40 questions in 35 minutes. Students who ace this section use the clever test-taking techniques that we at Ivy Coach teach so they can interpret data quickly in a range of science fields — chemistry, physics, genetics, botany, biology, and more.

3. The SAT Reading is more challenging — and longer.

The Reading sections of the SAT and ACT look similar, with page-long passages in fiction, sociology, humanities, history, and science followed by multiple-choice questions. But the SAT Reading test is much longer: 65 minutes to the ACT’s 35-minute test. The SAT passages are significantly harder reading, too, including archaic political treatises and arcane science research discussions. The questions, as well, are generally more complex, demanding proof of nuanced comprehension. The ACT, in contrast, focuses more on finding details.

4. The ACT Math section features more advanced mathy-math than the SAT Math.

For students who are strong in math, sleep with their Ti-84s under their pillows, and dream of vectors, matrices, and geometric progressions, the ACT Math section will be more fun than the SAT equivalent.

5. The SAT Math section has more words and algebra than the ACT Math.

On the other hand, the SAT focuses on algebra. Well, who doesn’t love algebra, right? But the SAT, with its inherent bias towards verbal skills, includes a lot of verbiages in its math. For some students, solving the “harder” math problems of the ACT may be easier than wading through complex word problems common to the SAT.

6. The ACT Math section counts less than the SAT Math.

Half the SAT exam and score is Math. On the ACT, however, Math is only 1/4 of the total score. So for the student who is strong in science but less of an ardent reader and also not so keen on math, the ACT might fit the bill. 

7. The ACT English test loves punctuation; the SAT Writing loves context.

While the ACT English test and the SAT Writing test look alike — which makes sense since the SAT, arguably, copied the ACT format when they revamped their test in 2016 — the focus is different. The ACT is especially obsessed with commas (yes or no) and apostrophes, while the SAT focuses on larger context and organization of paragraphs and passages. 

8. The ACT is more challenging than the SAT due to the time crunch.

Although the SAT Reading section is harder than the ACT’s, the ACT makes up for that by shortening the time. Many students find they have to rush in Reading and Math, and the time crunch in the ACT Science section is infamous.

9. Different scoring scales affect rankings — especially at the top.

The ACT, with each of the four tests scaled from 1-36 and then averaged, has a curve that becomes sharply steeper in the top 34-36 point range. The SAT, scored from 200-800 in each half of the test for a total of 400-1600, is much more fine-tuned to minor improvements in the score and has less of a curve extreme at the top.

10. Study materials are arguably better for the SAT.

With a longer history than the ACT, and a partnership with the terrific Khan Academy, the SAT offers better and more comprehensive study materials for free and on the marketplace than the ACT. The ACT’s “ACT Academy” is, arguably, a poor replica of The College Board’s resource.

The SAT vs. ACT: Top 6 Key Similarities

1. The SAT and the ACT are the same length.

They’re both three hours (excluding the ACT essay, which few students now take since colleges no longer require it). The SAT has done away with its essay section altogether.

2. The skill sets and knowledge tested are mostly the same.

Both exams test reading, math, grammar and usage, and STEM skills.

3. You’ll have plenty of test dates for either the SAT or ACT.

Both tests are given around seven times a year — and never on the same date. So don’t worry about conflicting test dates!

4. The SAT and ACT offer test dates for question-and-answer service — a terrific learning tool!

The SAT offers its Q&A Service for tests in March, May, and October. The ACT offers its comparable “Test Information Release” (TIR) service in April, June, and December.

5. Both the SAT and ACT support “super-scoring.” 

The SAT and ACT both offer the option to submit only the best administration’s scores to colleges. For students with better scores in one section on one date and another on a different date, The Common Application allows students to list multiple total test scores so that colleges can create their own “superscore” from the best composite of either ACT or SAT results.

6. The SAT and ACT ask many intrusive personal questions on registration. 

Both The College Board (the maker of the SAT) and ACT, Inc (the maker of the ACT) ask you to list your interests, intended college major, high school GPA, parents’ incomes, and more. But there’s no need to give them any of this information – which they will sell and violates your privacy. Read carefully to see the requirements for registration and that which is not required.

6 Reasons Why Students Should Take the SAT

1. You love reading.

Everything from classic novels to readings in science and history is a joy and inspiration to you!

2. You have a massive, sophisticated vocabulary.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and APUSH historical documents are your jam. You don’t mind looking up new words (but you don’t need to do so very often).

2. Advanced math topics are scary.

Vectors, matrices, combinatorics, and trigonometric functions give you hives. Run for the hills — or choose the SAT, which has none but centers on more accessible Algebra, graphing algebraic functions, and geometry with algebra.

3. ACT Science is a no-go.

The ACT Science test is just too rushed, and you’re stronger in other areas. This section is challenging not because it tests hard science topics (it doesn’t) but because it’s timed to force the test-taker to rush. There’s simply no time to study each of the six passages carefully and thoughtfully to address the 40 questions in 35 minutes.

4. You live outside the U.S.

The SAT is going digital overseas, but the ACT is already available on the computer overseas. Since both tests are or will soon be digital only outside of the U.S., preference for paper testing will not be a factor for you.

5. SAT study materials are more accessible and better designed.

Khan AcademyPWN Test Prep, The College Board’s 10 real tests: 8 in book form or all free online surpass the ACT’s offerings in Ivy Coach’s view.

6. Your school or state is giving the test for free during school!

Yes, you should prepare for and take that test. You’ll be at your school, it’s free, and a lot of the stress of regular test administrations is off your shoulders.

6 Reasons Why Students Should Take the ACT

1. You don’t love reading and you’re slow at it.

Nope! You’d much rather work on math, science, or engineering. Historical novels and archaic political treatises do not float your boat.

2. Your vocabulary is small.

No grandiloquent accolades can commend your word power (and flashcards are not your vibe).

3. Wordy algebra, no, but advanced math, yes!

With its inherent bias towards verbal skills, the SAT includes a lot of verbiages in its math. For some students, solving the “harder” math problems of the ACT may be easier than wading through complex word problems common to the SAT. You’re eager to flex your Trig, pre-Calc, and other more complicated math topics muscles. Sine functions? Natural logs? Bring ’em on!

4. Science is your strength.

The ACT Science test seems intuitive to you. You have enough time, and the topics are almost all in the realm of your knowledge base. Students who ace this section use the clever test-taking techniques that we at Ivy Coach teach so they can interpret data quickly in a range of science fields — chemistry, physics, genetics, botany, biology, and more.

5. Your calculator is your friend.

For students who sleep with their Ti-84s under their pillows, the ACT math section will be more fun than the SAT, which limits calculator use to only one of the two math sections.

5. You’re an international student and used to the ACT digital test, as it’s been the format outside the U.S. for several years.

You’d prefer to study for a known entity: the digital ACT is the same as the paper test in the U.S., so study materials are plentiful. The new digital SAT, debuting internationally in March 2023, has only one resource thus far: The College Board offers students a free app, Bluebook, on which they can take four practice tests, but that’s all!

6. Your school or state is giving the test for free during school!

Yes, you should prepare for and take that test. You’ll be at your school, it’s free, and a lot of the stress of regular test administrations is off your shoulders. 

Still trying to figure it out? Here’s a straightforward way to determine which test is better for you.

Every student should get a baseline SAT and ACT score before beginning their test prep — and making their test choice. This experience will determine not only which test is better suited to your strengths but also help pinpoint difficulty areas and serve as a measure of your subsequent progress. It’s the simplest, most direct way to judge which test is better for you.

Ivy Coach’s SAT and ACT Tutoring

If you’re interested in boosting your SAT or ACT score — or in figuring out which test better suits you — fill out Ivy Coach’s free consultation form, indicate tutoring, and we’ll be in touch to discuss our SAT and ACT tutoring.

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