One of the first questions I often get from families when we begin working together is about how to choose between the SAT and ACT. For some families, the answer will be that their students do not need to test. For the other families I have a short answer to this question and a long one. Here’s the short answer: take a practice ACT and a practice SAT, and compare your results. We are always happy to help you determine how those scores compare, so feel free to reach out once you have the data.
The long answer involves collecting a bit more information and squaring it with your student’s strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few points of comparison:
Question Difficulty: To start, it’s worth mentioning that questions in all of the SAT’s sections generally go from easier ones to harder ones. This trend is more pronounced in the math sections, but score reports tend to show verbal difficulty levels rising from question to question and, in large part, passage to passage. On the ACT, only the math questions increase in difficulty as the section progresses.
Math: This topic may be the biggest one. The SAT is more math-intensive, including a section of math questions in which a calculator cannot be used. The SAT math questions also tend to focus more on applications and conceptual math, and incorporate statistics more frequently. Students for whom math is not always intuitive may feel more comfortable with the ACT, which generally offers more straightforward questions. The ACT math questions do incorporate a broader range of concepts, including trigonometry, but the trig questions typically occur only 2-3 times per test, if that. The ACT also does not provide formulas while the SAT does. All told, however, students generally find the SAT math section to be more challenging.
Reading: The ACT reading section poses 40 questions from 4 passages to be done in 35 minutes. The SAT gives 52 questions from 5 passages to be done in 65 minutes. The SAT does offer more time per passage, but spending an additional 30 minutes on reading and comprehension questions might be something to consider as well. The passages per se are pretty comparable between tests, though some students find a few particulars of SAT passages to be a bit trickier. For example, the Founding Documents passages are pulled from older texts that, like Shakespeare, often prove challenging for students to decode. Additionally, all five passages have pairs of questions that require students to determine which lines prove the answer from the previous question. Many students find this format intimidating as it requires significant time and sophisticated reasoning to refer back to and decipher so many different lines of text.
Writing/English: These portions of the exams are probably the most comparable. They test many of the same grammar rules and style conventions, although the SAT questions occasionally require the analysis of data on charts. The SAT’s ratio of time to number of questions is again more favorable: 44 questions in 35 minutes, compared to the ACT’s 75 questions in 45 minutes.
Essay: Students are asked to write very different essays for each test. The SAT prompt requires students to analyze three component pieces of an argument in a speech or article and give examples for each. The ACT asks students to consider three different perspectives on a debatable issue and then write about their ow n stance as it aligns (or doesn’t) with the three perspectives. Overall, the SAT essay seems to offer a more concrete, digestible task.
Ultimately, the differences are nuanced enough that it’s nearly impossible to predict which test is a better fit without taking two practice tests. Whichever test you choose, we always recommend deliberate preparation for one. Every school, even the most competitive ones, accepts both exams, so it’s worth investing a little time upfront to make sure you’re choosing the right test from the outset. Junior year is stressful enough without having to prepare for two standardized tests!