The SAT and the ACT are the two major college entrance exams. While all colleges accept scores from both exams (and weight them equally), we recommend that students choose to take just one and prepare accordingly.
The SAT and the ACT assess students on a similar set of concepts (reading, math, grammar, writing, and data analysis), but each has its own testing philosophy and history, what we call “DNA.” Because of this different “DNA,” the tests are still slightly different, even after many years of drifting closer to one another.
Although the scoring systems for the two exams differ, many students will score comparably on the SAT and ACT. But some students will perform markedly better by choosing the test that’s better for them. There’s also a benefit to being familiar with the format of the test you’re focusing on, as the SAT and ACT are set up differently.
By choosing just one exam, you’re able to optimize your efforts and do as well as possible on that test.
How are the Exams Different?
Both the SAT and ACT cover basic reading, writing, and math skills that students are expected to acquire in high school. The SAT is scored out of 1600 while the ACT is scored out of 36.
Relative to the SAT, the ACT has:
- a lower average reading level;
- more demanding timing (more questions to answer in less time);
- a separate science section (mostly reading comprehension based on charts and graphs, not actual science)
Relative to the ACT, the SAT has:
- a higher average reading level (more difficult reading passages);
- more reading throughout the test, including in the math and writing sections;
- more switching between types of problems (for example, there are charts and graphs in the writing section)
Choosing Your Exam
Although we recommend selecting just one test to focus on, we also strongly suggest considering both exams rather than simply choosing the test you’re more familiar with. The best way to choose between the ACT and SAT is to do diagnostic testing for each exam.
A diagnostic test is a full-length practice test done under realistic testing conditions. If students are taking the diagnostic test on their own, they should be sure to use official tests distributed by The College Board (SAT) or ACT. Take the tests at the same time of day and ideally the same day of the week (Saturday morning often works well), but NOT on the same day!
Based on the diagnostic score as well as how you felt while taking the exam, you can then make an informed decision about which test to choose. Our Guide to SAT/ACT Preparation has a complete breakdown of how to evaluate your diagnostic exams. Signet also offers diagnostic testing services, so please contact us if you’re interested in learning more.
Test Prep Services
We make it a point to say that not every student needs professional test prep to do well on the SAT or ACT! Students who have a thorough test prep plan that they execute diligently can do very well, even improve their scores without a tutor. However, students with very aggressive score goals or very low starting scores may benefit from professional instruction. A tutor is not only a subject matter expert on standardized testing but also a source of support, encouragement, and accountability during the test prep process. If you’d like to learn about our test prep services, please reach out to us!
For more information, check out our Guide to SAT/ACT Preparation!