Choosing Between the ACT and the SAT

Choosing Between the ACT and the SAT

American colleges and universities now accept either the SAT or ACT with no preference or prejudice, regardless of geographical region or school selectivity.  Students should take advantage of this fact and make sure they prepare for the test that better suits their academic history, processing speed, and problem-solving style.  Here are a few factors to weigh when making the decision between the SAT and ACT.

  1. Make sure to try each test.

Take both the SAT and ACT at least once. Either through an official administration of the SAT or ACT or through a practice test administered at home or local testing center. As you do so, pay attention to the stylistic differences between the tests.  Did you feel rushed on the ACT?  Did you feel stumped by some of the trickier questions on the SAT?  Was there math content you’re unfamiliar with on either test?  In your gut, which test do you feel was a more comfortable exercise?

  1. Compare prior test scores

Stylistic differences between the tests are important, of course, but there’s no substitute for hard data.  While about half of students will score comparably on the SAT and ACT, the other half will be better suited for one test or the other; if you’re one of the students who is primed for better results on a specific test, you want to know!  Compare any scores you have on record—PSAT, SAT, ACT, PLAN, ACT Aspire—to see whether you’re in better shape for the SAT or the ACT.  If the scores are much higher on one test, prepare for that test!

For a conversion of SAT and ACT scores, please refer to the following chart:

PSAT scores are a relatively good indicator of future SAT scores, and PLAN scores also generally provide an accurate indication of expected ACT scores, though taking a real SAT or ACT is the best option, of course.  We are treating ACT Aspire results with caution this year (i.e. we aren’t really using them for anything meaningful), as the test is new, the predicted score ranges are huge (such as “your English score range is 18-26”), and the test format isn’t as faithful to the ACT as the PSAT is to the SAT.  Please contact Thirty-Six Education if you need a practice test to gather more information!

  1. Consider your classes and your grades.

The ACT directly tests content knowledge learned in high school classes, so students with accelerated classes and excellent grades are primed for strong ACT performance.  In particular, look at math and science classes.  The SAT only includes math content from statistics and algebra II/pre-calculus, while the ACT tests math content from pre-algebra to algebra II and even elements of precalculus and trigonometry.  Additionally, having taken (ideally) chemistry or, at least, another lab-based science is very important for taking the ACT—the science section of the test very much resembles the questions students have to answer when analyzing lab reports for chemistry experiments.

Of course, high-achieving students who take difficult classes and do well in them will likely score well on both the SAT and ACT, but the effect is more significant on ACT.

  1. Do you have trouble finishing timed tests?

The single most common complaint students have about the ACT is the difficulty of finishing its sections on time, particularly the reading and science.  If you struggle to finish tests in class or have struggled to finish the PSAT or SAT, the ACT may not be the test for you.    Increased familiarity with the formats of the reading and science sections of the ACT can help speed, but there’s only so much you can do to speed up on the ACT, so keep this aspect in mind as you decide between the two tests.  The SAT shouldn’t present timing difficulties for most students; if you prefer to have a bit more time to consider your responses, the SAT may be a more comfortable format.

Extensive practice with reading, like anything else, makes a student a better reader.  Of course, this helps on both the SAT and ACT.  However, the SAT’s emphasis on close reading for detail and, especially, vocabulary gives a significant advantage for students who have read widely.  The College Board has announced that the new SAT, offered for the first time in March 2016, will contain less obscure vocabulary than the current form of the test, substituting vocabulary that is more common in everyday work and school environments (no more having to learn words like “lugubrious” or “picayune”—or so they say!).  We’ll see how accurate this prediction is when the College Board releases practice materials for the new SAT.

  1. How comfortable are you with new, unfamiliar problems?

Are you the type of student who needs to have seen a problem before to solve it?  Or are you comfortable using clues in a problem to narrow down answer choices and select the best possible option?  The SAT contains much more novelty, or unusually phrased or presented questions, than the ACT does, so if you shut down and can’t solve a problem you haven’t “learned” before, the ACT is likely a better test.  If you’re comfortable using answer sets, estimating, and figuring out which answer is “best” rather than which answer is definitively correct, the SAT may be a better format.

  1. For sophomores in the class of 2017: when in doubt, prepare for the ACT.

The SAT’s format is changing in March 2016, when current sophomores will be juniors in the midst of their test prep.  As a result, the calendar for students preparing for the current form of the SAT is quite accelerated compared with previous years (include link to our blog post on this).    Thirty-Six Education plans to have students from the class of 2017 either finish preparing for the current form of the SAT by January 2016 (the last time the current form will be administered) or prepare for the ACT instead.  Students are welcome to take the new form of the SAT, but we’re recommending that our students not serve as “guinea pigs” for the first few administrations of the new SAT, which we expect will lead to unpredictable results.  If the decision is at all uncertain, it’s safer to prepare for the ACT in 2015/2016.