Should I take the SAT or ACT? 150 150 Brad Bailey

Should I take the SAT or ACT?

It is no secret that admission to colleges all over the country is becoming fiercely competitive. As standardized test scores are an integral part of college applications, a strong SAT or ACT score is the key to unlocking your future. But which test should you take? As an SAT and ACT test prep teacher of five years and the founder of Bailey Test Prep, parents and students frequently ask me whether they should take the SAT or ACT. The simple answer is both.

The SAT and ACT are both college admission exams, and while most colleges will accept both exams interchangeably, these exams are quite different. The key to success is to take both exams early, and specialize in the one that best suits you.

The SAT consists of three different subjects: Reading, Math, and Writing. Students will take 10 separate sections (3 scored reading, 3 scored math, 2 scored writing, 1 essay, and 1 experimental section). Most sections are 25 minutes but some sections are shorter. The ACT consists of a 45-minute English section, 60-minute math section, 35-minute reading section, 35-minute science section, and 30-minute essay. Each exam takes roughly four hours to complete.

There are a few obvious key differences between the two tests. First, the ACT tests science (or, more accurately, scientific reasoning and data analysis). Second, the ACT tests a slightly higher level of math than the SAT (the ACT will include some basic trigonometry usually taught in pre-calculus, whereas the SAT does not test math beyond Algebra 2). Finally, the SAT will directly test vocabulary in their sentence completion questions, while the ACT will test vocabulary indirectly with in-passage context clues.

Nevertheless, the main difference between the SAT and ACT is the manner in which they test their material. The SAT was originally an aptitude test (SAT used to stand for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”). Aptitude tests are designed to test one’s ability to learn. The ACT is more of an achievement test, which is designed to test what one has already learned. While this may seem like a minor semantic difference, it has a major impact on the strategies a student should use when taking each exam. For example, SAT questions are sometimes more like IQ puzzles, requiring the student to use what he or she has learned and apply it in new and different ways, whereas ACT questions are typically more straightforward knowledge recall but will require the student to perform quickly as time is usually more of a limiting factor. Having a strategic plan on how to approach these different styles of questions within the allotted times is what will set you apart from the rest.

While both exams serve essentially the same purpose, many students tend to do better on one exam. The best way to find out which exam you are better at is to take both. I recommend that students prepare for and take both exams early (ideally in the spring of their sophomore year or fall of their junior year). This way, students can compare their scores and experiences and decide which exam they should “specialize” in. Whichever exam they decide, they should take that exam a minimum of three times before applying to college in order to take advantage of “superscoring” (colleges will combine your highest scores for each section from all the different dates you took the exam).

As you prepare for these crucial exams, I wish you the very best of luck! For more information on the SAT and ACT, or to sign up for SAT and ACT prep classes, visit our store