As president of a tutoring company that tutors students privately all over the world for the SAT and ACT, there is no single question I am asked more consistently than, “Which test should I take? The SAT or ACT?”
Both tests are purported to test a survey of things you’ve learned in high school, but what each test includes and the manner in which it approaches those topics totally varies.
Let’s talk about what’s on the SAT and what’s on the ACT and take it from there.
The SAT Reading test is far more elevated than the reading test on the ACT, at least for now. When the SAT did away with the famous sentence completion section, people bemoaned that the test would no longer require students to have a strong vocabulary; however, the SAT reading test includes quite a bit of hefty vocabulary itself.
While the College Board argues that the meaning of the vocab embedded in SAT reading passages can be deduced using context clues, you don’t have to be a test prep expert to know that it’s better to know the meaning of a word than to have to “figure it out,” especially in a timed scenario.
The reading passages themselves usually fall into the categories of narrative memoir or fiction, social sciences, hard sciences (sometimes including charts), and a double passage in which students compare political philosophy points of view. The SAT reading section also sometimes includes 18th and 19th-century literature or political writings which involve understanding centuries-old English vernacular.
One of the most specific elements on the SAT that does not yet appear on the ACT is “supporting evidence” questions, in which students answer one multiple choice question and then select the excerpt which best supports that response in the next multiple choice question. Understanding the SAT’s rationale for identifying supporting evidence is particularly important if you choose to take the SAT, as these reading questions crop up often.
This section is the section most like the ACT. In fact, when you’re thinking SAT vs ACT, this section is automatically the least important in the decision-making process. While it’s not identical, it’s interchangeable enough to not affect a student’s choice.
Unlike the ACT, the SAT math has an entire subtest that doesn’t permit calculator use, and it exists entirely because students are so reliant on their calculators that many of them have lost (or never had) fluency working with numbers and recognizing their relationships. This section is heavy on algebraic reasoning and processes; only a few questions require real calculation by hand.
Don’t be deceived by the “calculator” section: just because you’re allowed to use a calculator on this section doesn’t mean it’s always best to do so. In fact, that’s part of the game of this section: you’ll do better if you know how to solve questions without brute force solving them out.
You should take the SAT essay only if the college you’re applying to requires it. The SAT essay is an argument analysis. Much like the kind of writing you’d do at college, it asks you to identify an argument in a sample piece of writing and analyze how the author develops an argument. For a complete analysis of the optional SAT essay, check out my post, How to Write the SAT Essay.
As I mentioned above, the English test on the ACT is so much like the Writing and Grammar test on the ACT that it shouldn’t be the deciding factor when you’re choosing between the SAT and ACT.
The math test on the ACT is exhaustive. It covers everything from arithmetic to relatively advanced trigonometry concepts, and it’s getting a little more inventive with every test iteration. Many students find the ACT test more “straightforward” even though it’s technically more difficult because it’s advanced.
ACT reading is always comprised of the same 4 passages: narrative literature, social science, humanities, and natural science. The test also usually involves a double passage, as well, in which students compare two authors’ ideas or claims. The ACT reading requires a student to work extremely quickly, but the questions don’t usually require the analytical depth or strong vocabulary that the SAT does.
The science section on the ACT tests science reasoning, not science knowledge. This test is all about applying analytical skills like reading graphs, understanding experimental processes, and creating reasonable extrapolations of ideas. Perhaps one or two questions might require you to have basic science knowledge, and those questions are usually only at the level of knowing which directions acids and bases go on the PH scale. That being said, the science section is always easier for students who have taken biology, chemistry, and physics; they tend to have more reflexive comfort answering questions within those contexts.
You can absolutely take an SAT and an ACT on official tests dates purely as diagnostics to get an idea of which test you prefer. Score choice generally protects students from “dry run” test days. You may not want to take this approach, nonetheless.
If you wait until the spring of your junior year, a point at which you should likely have learned the majority of the material tested on both tests and would therefore be “prepared” for the test, you’ll have to wait until individual official test dates for the SAT and ACT, and wait for those scores to come back separately, and then compare how you did and how you think you’ll improve.
It’s a time-consuming process that subjects you to the aggravation of test centers, the fees associated with real tests, and the schedule of the tests themselves rather than the time you have in your semester schedule to prepare.
The major factors that come into play when people choose between the SAT and ACT are
Most students feel more rushed on one test than the other. When you’re considering the benefits of the SAT vs the ACT, you need to figure out what material is on the test, how the test asks about those topics, and whether you can work quickly enough to complete the tests in time. Lately, most students feel more time pressure on the ACT, but that’s not always the case. Try both to get a sense for yourself.
I maintain that the ACT Science Reasoning section remains the most polarizing sub test out of everything on the SAT and ACT. Students either love it and fly through it, relying on it pull up their composite score, or they wrestle with its unforgiving pace and squirrely, confusing content design. While the SAT always includes charts and graphs and now even includes a science-based reading passage in the Reading test, the ACT Science test requires students to switch into a highly analytical mode that doesn’t always come easily after having already taken three other section tests.
In short, the SAT goes deep while the ACT goes broad. In recent months and years, however, we’ve seen the two tests behave like “frenemies,” borrowing from each and riffing on each other’s tricky questions. The SAT is a great test for students who have a wonderful, dynamic fluency in linear equations and functions–the basics of algebra; the ACT is often more accessible for students in trigonometry or calculus who have made those topical shifts in their heads.
It’s wise to have a strong vocabulary when you’re applying to college since you’ll inevitably have to write at the college level once you get there. The SAT currently benefits students whose vocabularies are more advanced. If your vocab is strong, it’s likely that your reading is on the stronger side, too. If you find you’re weak on the SAT and ACT reading, the ACT will probably be “easier” in the long run, but investing in your vocab to perform well on the PSAT–which you’ll take junior year no matter what–could be a good use of your time.
Calculating how much time you have to prep and focusing your energy and resources are the two best things you can do when you’re thinking SAT vs ACT. Don’t spread yourself thin: pick the one you prefer and go for it.