Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

Unless you’re planning on attending one of the 800+ test optional colleges, then you’ll be taking college admissions tests, the SAT, ACT or both. Most colleges will accept either test today, although some require one or the other or some of the SAT’s subject tests, so check with the colleges you want to apply to. If the college of your choice doesn’t have a preference, you can choose which test to take based on your own strengths and weaknesses. While most students perform about the same on both tests, the differences in the test might showcase your strengths better than the other.

Traditionally, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) was the test of choice for east and west coast colleges, while the ACT (American College Test) was preferred by Midwest and southern colleges. That’s changed in the last few years.

The SAT attempts to measure a student’s reasoning ability and analytic skills. The ACT tests the student’s knowledge of the core curriculum as taught in the majority of high schools. That is the most important difference in the tests. Other differences in the tests are more minor, but depending on what kind of student you are, might make either the SAT or the ACT a better test for you. The differences are as follows:

  • SAT does not cover science reasoning, while ACT has a science section.
  • SAT covers algebra and geometry, while ACT also covers trigonometry.
  • SAT puts more weight on vocabulary. ACT focuses on English grammar.
  • SAT essay is required and is the first section of the test. The score you receive is factored in with your overall writing score.
  • The ACT essay is optional and comes after the rest of the test. Keep in mind, however, that many colleges require the ACT essay section, so check with your choice of colleges before taking the ACT.
  • The SAT has more sections and takes three hours and 45 minutes. The ACT takes two hours and 55 minutes or three hours and 25 minutes with the optional essay section.
  • The SAT is not entirely multiple choice.
  • The SAT penalizes guessing at answers, wrong answers are marked off one-quarter point.
  • The ACT contains four content areas, English, Math, Reading and Science. ACT basically tests your knowledge of the core curriculum you studied in high school.
  • The SAT tests three areas, Reading, Writing and Mathematics. The required essay is included in the Writing section.

To discover which test you’re likely to do best on, you can sign up for the practice tests, the PSAT and the PLAN, in your sophomore year. The scores you get on the practice or predictive tests may reveal which test showcases your strengths better. You can also test yourself online by doing practice questions for each test. Practice questions for the ACT can be found at the ACT Student Web site. SAT practice questions are located at the College Bound SAT Web site.

There’s no cut and dried rules for which type of student will do best on which test. Plenty of theories matching types of students to test exist, but the theories are concerned with generalities, and there are always exceptions. Scuttlebutt, however, suggests that males may do better on the SAT, females on the ACT. Bright students who don’t study much do better on the SAT as it tests reasoning and analytical ability rather than curriculum questions. Students who always study and turn in their homework religiously do better on the ACT. Wordsmiths with large vocabularies do best on the SAT.

A student’s best bet is to work on the practice questions online for each test to see which test feels more comfortable to them. Register for and take both the PSAT and PLAN in 10th grade to see how well you do on each one. Put in some time studying for both the tests, that is, if your high school offers both. Take both tests and send off the best scores to the college of your choice.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.