How to Choose Between the SAT and the ACT

Over the last 20 years, virtually every college and university in the United States has adjusted their college admissions process to accept both SAT and ACT scores.  Before the year 2000, very few colleges accepted both tests; there were SAT colleges, mostly along the East and West Coasts, and there were ACT colleges, usually situated in the middle of the country.  A series of structural changes in the college admissions landscape led to a shift in this paradigm.  A large increase in the percentage of American high school students applying to college along with an increase in the number of students applying to college outside their home state led to a conundrum for colleges.  Admissions offices were seeing a growing tide of students applying who had taken the “wrong” standardized test.  Colleges adapted, and now students have the luxury of choosing between the SAT and ACT.

Unfortunately, having a choice can lead to not knowing which choice to make.  At first blush, the SAT and the ACT look more similar than ever.  In 2016, the College Board redesigned the SAT.  The changes were transformative.  The number of sections were reduced from ten to five.  The vocabulary questions were stripped from the Reading section.  The Writing section changed from a series of disconnected to grammar questions to a passage-based section that balanced grammar and writing style & technique.  Geometry was virtually removed from the math sections, which now focus more on word problems and data analysis.  The essay was updated from a simple persuasive essay to a challenging analytical essay.  In many ways, the current version of the SAT resembles the ACT more than it does pervious versions of the SAT.

In fact, the few changes that ACT, Inc. made to the ACT in 2016 resulted in the ACT adding a few features from the SAT playbook.  The ACT Reading section now includes a paired passage, in which a single set of questions refer to two passages paired together by topic.  The ACT essay now includes an analytical feature, although it is still primarily a persuasive essay.  The percentage of geometry questions on the math section has been reduced while a small smattering of data analysis questions have been introduced.

So, at the surface, the two tests are eerily similar.  Luckily, the two organizations which write and administer the tests, the College Board and ACT, Inc., are still very different.  The College Board has always believed in the concept of aptitude, innate ability, as a determining factor in college admissions.  ACT, Inc., instead believes that academic performance is the determining factor in college success, and have always built a test that they consider to be more academic and knowledge-based.

This has resulted in two tests that look similar but feel very different to a student taking them.  The SAT feels very tricky.  All of the questions, whether reading, math, or writing, are convoluted word problems.  Every language-based question is an inference question.  An inference is when a reader users the clues or hints in a sentence, question, paragraph, or passage, to identify ideas and concepts not clearly stated.  The SAT requires analytical reading, critical thinking, problem solving, and test-taking skills to determine what the questions are even asking of the student.  Only then can the questions be solved.  Further, on the SAT, the reading passages included in the test are generally 11th-12th grade, or even college-level, passages.  Conversely, the level of math on the test is primarily at the pre-Algebra, Algebra 1, or early Algebra 2 level.  Luckily, the timing mechanism on the current version of the SAT is relatively relaxed, as students are given an average of over a minute per question across the test.

The ACT, by contrast, focuses on knowledge and academics.  The questions in the reading, English, and math sections focus on what the student knows.  Questions tend to be straight-forward.  In the Reading section, most questions ask students to identify details from the passage.  The majority of the math questions ask students to utilize their math skills to solve the problem.  While the Science section utilizes more reasoning skills than science knowledge, basic test-taking techniques and a general knowledge of the scientific method are all a student needs for success on this section.  The challenge of the ACT is the timing mechanism.  The ACT packs in more questions over less time than the SAT.  In fact, students will see an average of under 50 seconds per question on the ACT.  While the difference between the two tests doesn’t seem like much, the result is that the majority of students who take the SAT are able to complete each section with plenty of time to spare, while students who take the ACT are rarely able to answer all of the questions within the time limit on even one of the four multiple choice sections.

That concept, timing, should be the determining factor in deciding between the SAT and ACT, in my opinion.  Students who like puzzles and prefer to have plenty of time in which to solve them should probably take the SAT.  Students who prefer straight-forward tasks and don’t mind a strict time limit should probably take the ACT.  Many students, however, don’t have enough experience to know which type of student they are.  That’s when taking a practice test or two, especially a test which compares the SAT and the ACT, can be the best option in setting up a student for success.