Should I Choose the SAT or the ACT?

This article is slated to be updated with the latest college testing information. For more updated information, please refer to our 2023 and 2024 articles.

Prior to January of 2016, in my role as head of the My College Planning Team tutoring division,  I rarely had to field the SAT vs. ACT question from prospective students or their parents.

With the sudden switch by the state of Illinois in favor of the SAT, this has changed.

Why the Change?

In deciding which test to take, it’s important to first understand why Illinois has now jettisoned offering free ACT tests to public high schoolers. Simply stated, it comes down to dollars and cents. The folks at the College Board (who write and oversee the SAT) underbid the ACT folks by approximately 1.7 million dollars. Since Illinois is committed to offering a standardized college entrance exam free of charge to juniors, this cost difference was enough to end years of ACT facilitation at several hundred sites across the state.
This change was NOT due to a sudden preference for the SAT on the part of universities and colleges. The prevailing trends remain: the SAT is generally preferred by private East and West coast institutions while the ACT is favored by public institutions and Midwestern schools at large. However, either exam is accepted by virtually any school, virtually anywhere in the nation and in many cases, abroad.

Same Tests, Same Choices

In short–the lay of the land hasn’t really changed.

With this established, deciding between the SAT and the ACT should come down to the features of each exam. I  believe that a student can perform well on either test if they prepare well. Not surprisingly, I think targeted tutoring plays a key role in that preparation. However, with that said, each exam is indeed designed differently, and the structure of one test may well play to your student’s strengths or weaknesses. For many, it pays to analyze a few significant elements of each test.

But Here are the Differences

The SAT may be considered more challenging in the math realm because calculators are not permitted on the entire test. Additionally, the math test measures data analysis-a feature the ACT does not have.

Conversely, the ACT has what many people (myself included) think is a more challenging reading section because the passages tend to be longer with scant time allowed for completion.

Science is included as a separate test on the ACT, unlike the SAT which does not feature a separate science section. However, science-based questions may indeed be woven throughout the reading portion of the SAT.  Additionally, doing well on the ACT Science test is not dependent on understanding scientific concepts per se: a student who has good reading skills and basic knowledge of elementary science vocabulary can perform quite well. Many moons ago, I myself scored a 28 on this section, and at the time, my only connection to science was a beaker I used as a vase.

Not Content but Structure

With these facts established, the most important difference is not a matter of content but of structure. On the SAT, the questions gradually increase in difficulty as a student progresses through each section. Not so on the ACT: remedial questions may appear at the end of a test, while the toughest questions may appear mostly at the start. Some students find that the gradual amping-up of difficulty of the former induces anxiety, while others may be thrown off by the unpredictability of the ACT set up.

Maybe Both the SAT and ACT?

As you well know, your student doesn’t want to take either one of these tests.  However, giving your student a say in the matter can be empowering. And of course, they can always take both and pick the better for submission to their schools of choice. But for those who don’t want to take both exams, understanding these differences can help students to perform as well as they possibly can.

If you are interested in learning more about your SAT or ACT options, or if you wish to explore Targeted Tutoring, contact us.



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