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SAT vs. ACT COMPARISON: Which test to take?

When we work with families to create a testing plan that best suits their student, our first goal is to help answer the question “Which test to take?”. Both tests are accepted equally by all US colleges. While the SAT and ACT require mastery of a similar set of academic skills, they have two very different approaches to their assessments. In our experience, students tend to have a preference for one test over the other even when they score similarly on both. Hopefully, this SAT ACT comparison will help.

At a high level, the difference between the SAT versus ACT comes down to what we refer to as “power” versus “speed”, respectively. Power speaks to the complexity and difficulty of the SAT reading passages and questions on the test, whereas speed comes from the quick pacing of the ACT test given the number of questions. As the power test, SAT questions in general are a little trickier in that they require more analysis and interpretation. The reading level of the SAT passages is harder than that found on the ACT “speed” test. Most students find the ACT questions and reading passages more straightforward, but can struggle with the very fast pacing of it.

Choosing the Right Test for Your Student

You may have heard rumors (i.e. myths) that a particular type of student is better suited for the power of the SAT and another type of student is better suited to the speed of the ACT. At the end of the day, the best way to decide whether to focus on the SAT or ACT is to have students sit down and take full length practice tests of each.

Roughly 20-30% of students will show a significant scoring difference between the SAT and ACT, and we generally recommend pursuing the test with the higher starting baseline score. However, most often, students score equally well on both tests, so the decision of SAT or ACT in many cases comes down to a student’s gut instinct. We jokingly ask students which test they disliked the least. Which one were they more comfortable with? Which one do they think plays to their strengths? Which one would they rather prep for and think they have an easier time raising their score? Other considerations can also factor into the SAT/ACT decision including the student’s reaction to the science section on the ACT (there isn’t one on the SAT) and the overall fast paced nature of the ACT. For the SAT, we want to gauge how they performed on some of the more challenging reading passages and the no-calculator math section (ACT allows calculators on the entire test).

With the scores from the two practice tests, our Score Report analysis of the types of questions that students missed, and input from the student about which test they preferred, we can help families decide on which test to focus their test preparation. [Side note: As a complimentary service to students, we administer proctored practice SAT and ACT tests (with and without Extended Time) at our offices and satellite locations most weekends throughout the year. You’ll get a detailed Score Report that analyzes strengths and areas for improvement.]

SAT and ACT Comparison Chart

The chart below gives a side by side comparison of the tests’ format, length, scoring, and specific content areas covered in reading, writing, math, and science.

If you need guidance navigating this process, or have questions about our personalized, one-on-one tutoring programs, feel free to contact our Program Directors who are experts in test prep for college.

compare sat and act
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