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SAT or ACT? Deciding Which Test Is Right For You

The SAT’s 2016 redesign made the differences between the SAT and the ACT less clear-cut, leaving many students confused about which college entrance exam they should take.

First, it’s important to know that both exams are accepted by all U.S. colleges and universities. Admission offices don’t have a preference for one exam over the other; both exams are treated equally in making admissions decisions. You won’t gain an edge at any college simply by opting for a particular exam.

What might make a difference in your admission profile, however, is identifying the exam that plays to your strengths as both a student and a test-taker. Focus your efforts on the exam you feel most comfortable with, advise test preparation experts, and your odds of scoring well are likely to be better.

So, how do you decide which exam is the better fit for you? The following questions are a good starting point:


Which practice test do I score best on?

The best way to decide which of the exams is the best match for you is to do a timed practice test for each exam. Both the ACT and the College Board (the maker of the SAT) offer free online sample tests on their websites. If you score significantly better on one exam (a score converter is available on the College Board site), it makes sense to devote your energies to that exam. If your scores are similar, think about which exam felt more comfortable to you; that’s often the best match.


Do you prefer to work at a faster pace on exams?

There isn’t a huge difference in the amount of time required for each exam; without the optional essay, the SAT is three hours while the ACT takes two hours and 55 minutes. However, the ACT has more questions overall, so students have less time per question. This may be a plus for students who like to move quickly on exams, but a negative for students who prefer to take their time.


Are you a strong, fast reader?

The passages on the reading section of the ACT are written for a 10th to 11th grade reading level, while the SAT uses passages that range from a 9th grade level through early college. The SAT reading section may be a little more challenging for weaker readers because it includes passages from classic texts which use more arcane language. The questions then ask test-takers to identify the specific parts of the passage that support their answers to certain questions. On the ACT, solid reading skills are important not just for the reading section, but also for the science section, which asks students to read, identify and interpret data in passages. Strong readers likely will do well on either exam, but given the ACT’s fast pace, the SAT may be more comfortable for you if you are a slower reader.


Do you panic on math tests if you can’t use a calculator?

The ACT allows you to use a calculator for the entire math section. On the SAT, however, you can’t use your calculator for approximately 20 out of 75 questions. While the questions are designed to be answered without a calculator, the ACT might be the way to go if you feel more confident having full access to a calculator for the entire exam.


Are you more confident on math tests when the necessary formulas are given to you?

The ACT math section assumes that students will have certain basic mathematics formulas memorized. On the SAT, the formulas necessary to answer questions are provided. In either case, you still need to know how to actually use math formulas to solve problems, but if you tend to get brain freeze when it comes to math formulas, you may prefer the SAT.


Are you good at interpreting and analyzing data using charts and graphs?

The fact that there is a “science” section on the ACT scares off many students. In truth, you don’t actually need to know much scientific theory in order to do well on the ACT Science section. What you do need to know is how to read, analyze and interpret data given in charts and graphs, as that is what the ACT science section asks test-takers to do. If you opt for the SAT, you won’t skip this entirely, since the SAT reading section includes at least one science passage and the math section also includes some data analysis, however, you won’t have an entire test section devoted to it.


Do you need extended time accommodations due to a learning difference?

On the SAT, if you’ve received 50% extended time, you can only complete one section at a time and must stay on the same timeline as the rest of the extended time group. On the ACT, you’ll be given an extended block of time for the entire test and can selfpace how you divide your time between sections. If you receive 100% extended time, you can take the SAT over two days at your school. The ACT program allows 100% extended time students to take one section of the ACT per day.


Does your state or school district require or pay for a particular exam?

Twelve states currently require that all high school seniors take the ACT, while nine states have the same requirement for the SAT. Sixteen states make the ACT available for free, while another four fund ACT testing on a district-optional basis. Nine states plus the District of Columbia fund the SAT for students. Although you always have the option of taking both exams, if your state or district requires a particular exam – or will pay for it – it may make sense for many students to focus their test preparation energies on the relevant exam.


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