More students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time last year. If you’re starting your test preparation program this year, which test should you take and how can you use the choice between the SAT and ACT to your advantage?
Firstly, the idea that one test is markedly easier than the other is a common myth. Preparing for the ACT or SAT both require hours of dedicated practice and sustained hard work to master the relevant content and internalize the necessary test-taking strategies. Which test you will score better on depends on your personal preferences as a test taker and which test you find yourself getting more excited about.
If trigonometry, radians, and logarithms keep you up at night, you’re probably better off with the SAT Math sections, which are more reasoning based (testing Algebra, Geometry, and only elementary Algebra II concepts). The ACT tests more advanced math concepts and is more content focused. But if you love your honors Algebra II and Pre-Calculus classes and it’s your vocabulary that you’re nervous about, you will probably prefer the ACT’s verbal reasoning sections, which do not test high-level vocabulary out of context the way the SAT does (about a third of the SAT’s Critical Reading questions explicitly test vocabulary).
Is timing your biggest challenge? If that’s the case, you may want to look to the SAT. The ACT is faster paced and lends itself to students who work quickly. For example, the ACT Math section consists of 60 questions in 60 minutes whereas the SAT Math sections spread 54 questions over 3 sections for a total of 70 minutes. Additionally, the ACT has 5 longer sections that each tests all the content for that subject at once, whereas the SAT contains 10 shorter sections, with multiple sections for each subject type.
Even the relatively straightforward essay sections of these tests are surprisingly different. The 25-minute SAT essay is mandatory while the 30-minute ACT essay is technically optional (though many colleges prefer or require it for admission). The SAT asks a big-picture question (e.g. is struggle necessary for personal growth?), which the student can answer with examples from his or her “reading, studies, experience, or observations.” The prompt on the ACT is more focused, asking the student to take a position on a specific issue that’s more clearly related to high school (e.g. should students need to maintain a certain grade point average in order to receive a driver’s license?).
One of the most noticeable differences between the tests is that the ACT contains a Science section unlike any sections on the SAT. However, students are often surprised to find out that this section is more skill-based than fact-based, and actually doesn’t require any outside scientific knowledge.
The tests are also scored differently. On the ACT, students gain points for right answers and do not lose points for blank or incorrect answers (so never leave an ACT question blank, you have nothing to lose!). The SAT has what some refer to as a “guessing penalty” where students gain 1 point per correct answer, neither lose nor gain points for a blank answer, and lose a quarter of a point per wrong answer (so don’t risk losing points by randomly guessing, only guess when you can eliminate at least 1 answer choice!)
A full description of the differences between the SAT and ACT is available here.
While students’ SAT and ACT scores are highly correlated, meaning students generally perform similarly on both tests, it’s worthwhile to find out early if you have a clear preference for either test (scores can be easily compared using this correspondence table). Switching back and forth between tests or trying to prepare for both simultaneously is generally not an effective or efficient use of your precious test preparation time. It’s also worth noting that colleges and universities do not prefer one test over the other.
Luckily there is an easy way to figure out early which test you prefer. My Learning Springboard is now offering a new diagnostic tool that allows us to measure performance on the SAT versus the ACT with one 3-hour assessment before you begin your test preparation journey. While it’s not exactly the same as taking a full-length practice test for both the SAT and ACT, it certainly is a valuable diagnostic tool for students who want a straightforward comparison of their potential performance on each test before they start their prep work.
And don’t forget, there is more to your college application than test scores!By Jason Turetsky, Private Tutor