Today we have a guest post from Emily Holleman. Emily Holleman is a Content Developer at Knewton, where she helps students rock their SAT prep.
Over the course of your junior and senior years, you’ll be bombarded by a seemingly endless stream of questions—Where do you want to go to college? How many schools should you apply to? What classes/activities/sports/volunteer work/color-scheme will look best on your application? Even, which test you should take: the ACT or the SAT or (heaven forbid) BOTH? This is one decision you shouldn’t stress too much about. The truth is, most students do about the same on both tests—and the majority of colleges now accept scores from either test.
Here’s a breakdown of the differences between the two to help you decide which test is right for you:
Testing “philosophy.” The ACT tries to test what its test-makers think you should have learned in school. The SAT wants to test your what can best—and controversially—be called –“innate ability.” Basically, the ACT is more straight-forward and concentrates on particular subjects and skills taught in high school, while the SAT is a bit trickier and tries to test your problem-solving abilities.
What’s on it. The ACT is broken down into four parts: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT has three sections: Reading, Writing, and Math. The ACT tests science and trigonometry, neither of which appear on the SAT. The SAT, on the other hand, tests vocabulary to a much greater extent than the ACT does.
Difficulty. There’s a prevailing myth that the ACT is easier than the SAT. However, there’s not much truth to this: The vast majority of test-takers scores in the same percentiles on both tests. Since both tests are scaled (that is, your final score is based on how you do compared to everybody else), that’s really all that matters. So, the two tests are about equally difficult.
Length. The ACT is 2 hours 55 minutes plus a 30-minute optional essay. The SAT is 3 hours 45 minutes including a 25-minute mandatory essay. Although the ACT gives you less time to complete the test, it actually has more questions than the SAT: There are 215 questions on the ACT compared to 170 on the SAT.
The essay. The ACT essay is optional, while the SAT essay is mandatory. The SAT prompt is usually abstract and open-ended (like, do people learn from their mistakes?), while the ACT prompt is more specific and high school-centric (for example, should more schools adopt uniforms?). On both tests, you’re expected to write an essay that makes a strong argument and uses specific examples to support that argument.
Answering strategy. The ACT only includes multiple-choice questions and has no penalty for wrong answers. The SAT is primarily made up of multiple-choice questions, but has ten “grid-in” questions on Math where you need to provide your own answers. On multiple-choice questions, the SAT has a small penalty for guessing (you lose ¼ point for every wrong answer).
Which schools accept it. Traditionally, students in the Midwest generally took the ACT while students on the coasts (or students applying to the highly-selective colleges there) took the SAT. Today, however, the lines are much more blurred. Most colleges, even the really elite ones, now accept scores from either test. However, the vast majority of applicants to the most selective colleges still apply with SAT scores. So, if you’re planning to apply to any of those schools, you might be better off taking the SAT.
Bottom line. The most important thing is to figure out whether your top school has any particular preference for one test over the other. You can do this by looking on its website or asking your college counselor. If you’re planning on applying to highly-selective colleges, you’ll probably want to opt for the SAT. Otherwise, you should pick the test you feel most comfortable with.