Should I take the SAT or ACT?

I heard “The Question” again today.  I often hear it several times a day.  The answer is simple: take both!  Why?

Most students (approximately 70%) get near equivalent scores on the two tests.  However, research involving thousands of students shows that about 15% of students do better on the SAT and another 15% do better on the ACT.  What if you are in one of those two latter groups?  If you only take one of the tests, you may well be reducing your chances of getting into particular universities and/or receiving certain scholarships or other financial aid.

You don’t have to necessarily take the real tests to decide if you have an advantage on one test or the other.  Guidance offices usually have real SAT and ACT tests provided by the test writers.  Pick them up and try them out.  You may already have a score on one of them (or the PSAT) so you’ll just need to take the other.

After you have the two scores, compare your scores using the page:

Do you have a head start on one or the other?  If so, your path is obvious.  If you have about equivalent scores, keep in mind that it is usually easier to raise an SAT score than an ACT score!  Why is that true?

Let’s begin with what I consider a “head start.”  Take a look at a chart comparing SAT and ACT scores.  If you are within one score one way or the other of exactly equivalent scores, then I consider your scores to be equivalent.  Why do I think that?  Let’s use an example from the  chart on the ACT website I mentioned above.  If you have an ACT score of 23, that means if you take it again (without prepping or changing what you did the first time), in all likelihood you would get a score of 22, 23 or 24.  The equivalent SAT scores for those ACT scores range from 1030 to 1110.  The comparison means you have to be two levels apart on the chart to have a “head start” or advantage on one of the tests over the other.

Now let’s see why you should focus on the SAT unless you have an advantage on the ACT.  That is, if you are about the same, I recommend focusing on the SAT.  It is simply easier to raise an SAT score!  There are a number of reasons why this is true and it is supported by over 20 years of experience.  The easiest explanation to understand has to do with what colleges and other organizations (e.g., NCAA Clearinghouse) care about.  When they look at your ACT score, they consider all four sub-tests (English, Math, Reading, and Science).  Frequently, they only care about your SAT Reading and Math scores and disregard your Writing score.  Even if they care about your SAT Writing score, you don’t have a Science Test to take for the SAT.  It boils down to having less to study and practice.  In addition, there is more content on the ACT math section than on the SAT.  For example, you will see four trig questions on the ACT and trig never shows up on the SAT.  Other topics like logs and matrix algebra appear on the ACT but not the SAT.  There are line references for many more reading questions on the SAT than the ACT which makes it easier to find the answers in the passages.  I can go on and on but you get the point.

Are there exceptions to my general recommendation?  Sure there are.  If you want me to address your personal situation, please feel free to send me an email and we can discuss what I would suggest in your circumstances.

I hope you are having a good summer and you remembered to hug your dad today!

The Wizard

About Bob Alexander

Bob has been a professional educator starting with teaching biology, becoming a school administrator, and then working as an education lobbyist in Washington, DC. He got his start in national testing by becoming a consulting test writer, later joining Kaplan as a director, and finally starting his own business in 1995. He has written numerous books, consulted for school districts and colleges, developed his website and been featured on a DVD set. He offers SAT and ACT prep classes and tutors individuals and small groups of students in central Florida.
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