Which Test Should I Take: SAT or ACT?

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is to provide advice for parents and students choosing between the SAT and the ACT.  As my responses to the questions regarding the differences and similarities have become more polished and concise over time, I'll share them with you in a Q&A format, because it seems like the most efficient way to answer them.  Or maybe because I like talking to myself.  You be the judge.


Q:  Which test should I take, the SAT or the ACT?

A:  Well, it depends on what type of a student you are. The factor that most often determines your choice is the speed at which you read.  If you are the type of student who reads well and reasonably quickly, but doesn't ever read a single book or article that hasn't been assigned by the teacher, you're going to be in the ACT camp.  The ACT offers more straightforward reading questions that lack some of the complexity and most of the vocabulary of the SAT, but at the tradeoff of requiring you to complete the section without much time to spare.

On the other hand, if you are a capable reader but just read slowly, then the SAT is going to be your best option to get to all of the questions.  I've worked with very smart but very slow readers before, and the frustration of not being able to complete all the passages on the ACT gnaws at readers' consciences, leading them to try and rush and make lots of careless mistakes.  While studying for the SAT requires a student to memorize lots of arcane and abstruse vocabulary, students with time issues have a higher score ceiling on the SAT than the ACT.

The other reason reading speed factors into the decision process is the ACT science section.  The science section is very tightly timed; if a student has trouble getting finished with the ACT reading section, he or she is definitely going to have trouble getting the science section done in time.

Of course, if you fall somewhere between these two categories, sometimes it is just easier to take a diagnostic test in each, pick one, and stick with it.  If you are a fast reader with a great vocabulary, then the world is yours.  (Seriously.)


Q:  Ok, but lots of colleges prefer the SAT, right?

A:  First of all, a disclaimer:  as a tutor, my primary responsibility is to get a student's score up, and to figure out the best way and the best test to do just that.  As I have often worked closely with very talented college advisors, I try to remain agnostic about the college advising process.  My advice should never be construed to conflict with that of a competent college counselor (because some colleges might have specifically stated policies of which I am unaware).

With that said, the general feedback that I have received indicates that colleges are primarily looking for a number that makes you look good.  They would rather see a high score on the ACT than a low score on the SAT.  If you're a student who reads well in school but has never learned any vocabulary that wasn't forced upon you, then unless you have a change of heart, the SAT is going to be an uphill battle.  

In every SAT class I have taught, I start harping on vocabulary from day one.  What unfortunately happens is that some students ignore me (and the vocabulary quizzes I give out), and discover by the end of the course that vocabulary is the single thing holding them back from their dream score.  By that time, they have to wait a month or two to take the test again, which, when coupled with final exams, causes them real pain.

For every ACT student just starting the test preparation process, the first thing I do is to give him or her a reading section.  The thought process and mistakes will get ironed out eventually, but I want to make sure that the student has enough time to get through each passage.  If that's not the case, I have to manage the lessons much differently, and so it's one of the most important things I can determine.


Q:  Ok, but seriously, isn't the SAT regarded as a "tougher" exam, so it's "worth more" on your application?

A:  When I was applying to college many, many moons ago, I had never heard of the ACT.  [Charles, you are not that old. Young grasshopper! - Anna] I grew up in Connecticut, and taking the SAT was a rite of passage.  Since around 2004, when I first encountered it, until now, the ACT has been gradually increasing its presence and market share and has gained roughly equal footing. 1.5 million people took the SAT last year, and 1.42 million took the ACT, according to each test's respective web site.  As more and more stories have been written about the problems surrounding the SAT, (see here for an example), many colleges out there want to seem impartial or are deemphasizing standardized tests in their own admission rubrics.  The fact that you took an SAT or an ACT matters much less than the score you eventually got, which sometimes (but not always) matters much less than a lot of the other stuff on your application.


Q:  One last question.  Doesn't the SAT test you more on "how smart you are," while the ACT tests you more on "stuff you've learned?"

A:  No.  Both exams have one purpose in mind:  to divide the Junior class of American high school students into neat little piles so that they can sell off data piece by piece to different colleges and universities.  Both tests do this by providing a test of complex questions, although they manufacture complexity in different ways.  

The ACT's attitude is, "We'll give you a lot of questions that are more straightforward, but that you most likely won't have time to complete, and ‘certain' people will be able to get a good score."  The SAT's attitude is more, "We'll give you fewer questions with more time to do them, but some of them are so hard that only ‘certain' people will be able to get a good score."  Both the SAT and ACT want you to believe that these "certain" people are the "smarter" or "more capable" students, but the research used to support this is highly prone to self-interest.  

See this link for an example, then contrast it with this one.  If you actually read the report (in the box to the right of the College Board press release), the College Board heavily massages its data to get the conclusions it wants.  If you wade through the thicket of language that they use to describe the "corrections" that they apply to the correlations, then you are a very patient reader indeed.

The takeaway is that you can exploit the differences between the SAT and ACT to find a test that is better aligned to who you are as a test taker (which is not necessarily the same as who you are as a student).

Agree?  Disagree?  Have any questions or similar points about graduate admissions exams?  Please comment.

Charles Williamson has helped hundreds of students prepare for standardized tests. He blogs for the Ivey Files about test prep, the intersection of education and technology, education policy, and whatever other topics strike his fancy.