Considering that most colleges and universities in the United States currently accept either the SAT or the ACT as part of the application process, a common question parents and students will ask their college counselors, teachers, and test prep tutors is which one should I take? SAT or ACT? This question used to be purely academic. Up until around the year 2000, the vast majority of colleges and universities were either SAT schools or ACT schools. The divide between the two was largely geographic.
The SAT was launched by the College Board as the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the mid-1920s at the request of the Ivy League colleges as an attempt to provide factual evidence of the superiority of those schools and the students they accepted. The original SAT was a series of logic and vocabulary puzzles, and many versions of the test administered in the late 1920s through the late 1930s had no math questions whatsoever. By the 1940s, however, the modern structure of an English section and a Math section each scored on the scale of 200 to 800 had taken shape.
The belief was that the test scores could be used to predict academic success in college and that Ivy League schools and their students were superior to other colleges and their students. Whether that was or is true or not is definitely a matter of historical interpretation. What is unequivocally true is that a large swath of colleges in the northeast and later the rest of the east coast and the west coast also adopted the SAT as a requirement for admission by the 1950s. Since the Ivy Leagues, as the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States, required the SAT for admission, colleges that wanted to be considered respectable had to keep up.
The ACT was designed and produced by professors and staff from the University of Iowa who were dissatisfied by the content and philosophy of the SAT. They believed that the SAT, which was very different from the test administered today, was too focused on logic puzzles, so the ACT was designed as much more of a content-based exam. The ACT has historically been more closely aligned with topics taught in school, and its four original sections were English (grammar & usage), Math, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences. While the Social Studies section morphed into the modern Reading section by the end of the 1980s, the ACT has remained far more stable and consistent than the SAT. Colleges in the geographic middle of the United States adopted the ACT in lieu of the SAT, and the two tests dominated their territories for the remainder of the 20thCentury.
With the greater focus on college attendance and graduation proposed by various politicians and public figures in the 1990s, and the resultant rapid rise in college applications, most colleges were seeing far more students from parts of the country that had not previously applied to their schools begin to apply in large numbers. More and more often, students applying to schools in SAT territory had taken the ACT and students applying to schools in ACT territory had taken the SAT. Colleges adapted, and began to accept both tests on equal footing.
That leaves the question open. Which test should students take? Since geography is no longer a determining factor, and colleges will accept either, many parents, students, teachers, college counselors, and test prep tutors are left to wonder which is better. The answer is, unfortunately, not simple. Even though the SAT was originally designed as a logic puzzle test, over the last 30 years, it has become more and more similar to the ACT. Both are a little tricky and very content-based, with a primary focus on reading, grammar & usage, math skills through the beginning of pre-Calculus, and essay writing skills. Most students who have not had any test prep perform relatively the same on either test.
The answer comes down to the remaining differences between the tests. The SAT, due to its history, is still the more tricky test, with questions that must be interpreted and “translated” into plain English. The test, however, gives students a relatively relaxed timing mechanism with between a minute and 15 seconds to a minute and a half per question. The SAT essay is a very challenging writing sample, requiring students to read a two-page passage, either a full, recently-published newspaper-style article or an excerpt from a speech given by an historical figure, and write up to four pages of analysis of that document. The ACT, in contrast, is more straightforward, with questions that are clear and easy to understand, even if they are not easy to solve. The toughest part of the ACT is the timing mechanism. Students have between 40 seconds up to a minute per question on the ACT, a significant difference from the timing on the SAT. The ACT essay, in contrast, is a simpler task than the SAT essay. On the ACT essay, students are presented with a single paragraph that describes a current event issue followed by three shorter paragraphs of three opinions on that issue. A student is expected to describe and support their own opinion on the issue while briefly analyzing why they agree or disagree with two or more of the provided opinions.
So which test should you or your child take? The answer to that question is probably the answer to the question of what you will find harder: trickier questions or a strict time limit. Most students may not know the answer to this conundrum. It is, therefore, best to try out a real SAT and a real SAT, or take a comparison test, and use the results to guide you toward the best testing solution for you as an individual. Luckily, the answer to this decision will not limit your choices of which colleges you can attend to which you can apply. Remember, colleges will accept either test.