ACT or SAT – Which College Test Should You Take?

by Ian Welham

In meeting with and talking to our students, I’m amazed at the number of tests, quizzes and exams they’re forced to endure. It seems like they get tested weekly in almost every subject. Really – is that necessary? What is gained by constant testing, other than increasing the stress and anxiety levels of a generation who’s constantly being measured? It’s not healthy.

So how can I turn around and say I’m in favor of subjecting students to 2 standardized tests instead of one? Most kids select either the SAT or the ACT without knowing the ins and outs of each test. If a student knew the idiosyncrasies of each test and pre-determined that they’d have a better chance at success with one versus the other, I’d be all in favor of simply taking one.

But they don’t. In New Jersey, most students choose the SAT because that’s what most other kids take. And they ignore the ACT. But the fact is, each test favors a certain type of knowledge and a certain learning style.

The general rule of thumb is, ACT questions go deeper in knowledge than SAT questions, although they cover fewer areas. ACT testing purportedly more closely resembles classroom learning and testing. Also ACT questions are typically more straightforward than SAT questions. The wording on SAT questions seems to be designed to trick or confuse test takers. Sometimes the most difficult thing about an SAT question is determining what exactly is being asked. Finally, a word about guessing: since you are not penalized for incorrect answers on the ACT, guessing can only help your score (try to eliminate 2 answers first, which improves your odds of success from 25% to 50%).

One last thing: science is not included on the SAT, but it is on the ACT. If you do well in science, it might benefit you to take the ACT. If you don’t know which test you’re likely to perform better on, you should take both to give yourself the best chance for admittance—especially since standardized scores still carry considerable weight.

Most colleges will take either result. After you take both tests, you can decide which scores to submit. One success strategy is to sit for the ACT and SAT in the spring of junior year. After seeing which one suits you best, take either the ACT or SAT preparation course and then retake that test next fall to try to boost your score.

Here’s a quick comparison of ACT vs SAT:

Test length 3 hrs, 25 min (including half-hour optional essay) 3 hrs, 49 min
Test sections 4 to 5 sections 10 sections
Math content 25% of total score
Tests up to Trigonometry
33% of total score
Tests up to Geometry and Algebra II
Science content Tests science reasoning (analysis, problem solving) Science not included
Essay Last section (optional)
30 minutes – not included in total score
First section (required)
25 minutes – factored into total score
Scoring 4 scores of 1-36 per subject area
Composite Score: 1-36
3 scores of 200-800 per section
Total: 2400
Guessing Strategy Always guess Guess when you can eliminate some answer choices

Costs are about the same for both tests – under $50 each. While most colleges and universities accept either the SAT or ACT, be sure to check every college you’re applying to in order to make sure they will accept your scores.

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Ian R. Welham, Certified College Planning Advisor  -  Tel: 973.467.0101