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Should I take the ACT or SAT?

April 3, 2019

When I was navigating the college admissions process (over a decade ago!), my high school counselor told me that the SAT was preferred by elite colleges, particularly those on the coasts. While this may have been true and the SAT was long the most popular college admissions test in the U.S., the ACT surpassed it in popularity in 2012.

The growing success of the ACT has been attributed to the test’s closer alignment with the US curriculum. Today, the SAT and ACT are both widely accepted and respected by colleges.

So, does that mean you should take both exams?

For most students, it is better to focus on one exam. Although the content on the ACT and the SAT overlaps, there are differences in the topics tested. From the college admissions perspective, it is better to earn an outstanding score on just one exam, than to receive pretty good scores on both exams.

Here’s a five question quiz to help you decide which test to take:

  1. How do you feel about science?
    1. It’s one of my favorite subjects! I’m taking every AP/IB Science class I can. I’m great at interpreting data and understanding how scientific studies are designed.
    2. It’s not my thing. I would rather focus on other subjects.
    3. I like science, but I have other strengths. I understand the basics of the scientific method, cell biology, and the laws of motion.
  2. How do you feel about doing math calculations without a calculator?
    1. What’s the point of being good at calculations if I have a smartphone with me everywhere I go?
    2. I’m great at mental math and pen-and-paper calculations! I can easily convert between between fractions and percentages in my head.
    3. I’m pretty good at math, but I feel more comfortable when I can check my work with a calculator.
  3. How comfortable are you with trig?
    1. I remember the basics, like how to use the unit circle.
    2. I haven’t taken it. Or, if I have, I don’t remember a thing.
    3. I would need to refresh my knowledge if I’m going to be tested on it.
  4. How much do you read books/articles with difficult vocabulary?
    1. I read what’s required in school, but not much beyond that.
    2. I love reading challenging new material and learning new words!
    3. I like reading, but I don’t go out of my way to learn big words.
  5. How quickly do you generally finish tests?
    1. I’m usually the first one finished. I fly through tests!
    2. I try to take my time and re-check my work. What’s the point of finishing early?
    3. I’m somewhere in the middle. I always finish my tests in the allotted time, but I’m usually not one of the first finishers.

If you chose:

  • Mostly A’s: The ACT might be the test for you! Things to keep in mind:
    • Test pacing is more challenging on the ACT, especially on the Math section.
    • You can use a calculator on the entire Math section.
    • A wider range of math topics are tested on the ACT, compared to the SAT.
    • The ACT has a Science section, which tests a broad range of knowledge and skills, from interpreting data visualizations to the understanding the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology.
  • Mostly B’s: The SAT is a good fit for you. What you should know:
    • The SAT puts a greater emphasis on challenging vocabulary. If you are a big reader or love pouring over vocabulary lists, then the SAT will show off this strength.
    • The SAT has a “no calculator” Math section, but there is no Science section.
    • Generally, the SAT requires less familiarity with Trigonometry.
    • SAT Math questions tend to be more complex and require more problem decomposition than the ACT.
  • Mostly C’s: The ACT and the SAT both appeal to different aspects of your skillset. Take a practice ACT and a practice SAT, then decide which test to focus on based on your practice scores and comfort level with each exam. See the ACT-SAT concordance table to see how a score on the ACT (out of 36 points) compares with a score on the SAT (out of 1600 points)
  • Here’s what you should know about both tests:
    • The ACT and the SAT Math sections both test skills related to numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, and data analysis.
    • Both tests require students to make inferences, find evidence in text, and identify key ideas, tone, and argumentation techniques.
    • Both test a student’s ability to identify errors in punctuation, grammar, usage, and logic.