Choosing Between the SAT and ACT

Choosing Between the SAT and ACT

Even after the latest updates to the SAT, most students will still want to focus on either the SAT or the ACT. You can start by reading about the differences between the SAT and ACT and getting a sense of which sounds better. However, nothing will be as informative as actually having your student take a diagnostic test of each and comparing for themselves. If they took the PSAT sophomore year, that works as a pretty solid diagnostic for the SAT. Here’s how they should approach taking the diagnostic tests:

1. Do a bit of research. Your student should have at least a passing familiarity with the test format and structure before the diagnostic. This basically means they should have looked over the instructions for all of the sections, getting a sense of what each section entails.

In terms of the big picture, here’s a bit more detail on the differences between the two tests: 

a) Relative to the rSAT, the ACT has

    • a lower average reading level; more demanding timing (more questions in less time); 
    • a separate science section (which is mostly just reading comprehension around charts and graphs, not actual science)

b) Relative to the ACT, the rSAT has:

    • a higher average reading level (generally harder passages); 
    • more reading throughout the test, including in math and writing;
    • more switching between types of problems (for example, there are charts and graphs in the writing section) 

Given the above, you may already have a hunch which test to go for. If so, you can start there. But if you don’t know, or if you want to be more thorough, continue to the remaining steps.

2. Use an official, full-length practice test from ACT or the CollegeBoard, not a test from a third-party company. You can find an official ACT here, and you can find official rSATs here.

3. Have your student take the test under the most realistic conditions possible. Try to find a Saturday or Sunday morning with a clear schedule. Print out the test and have the student grid answers on an actual answer sheet. Eliminate any potential distractions (especially cell phones).

4. The test should be as much like a real test as possible. However, do have your student:

– Mark questions they guessed on with a “G”

– Circle questions they were unsure on

– Jot down, after each section, the answer to the following questions:

    • How did they feel during this section?
    • On which topics and types of questions do they think they need work?
    • Did they feel pressured or run out of time?
    • How easy was it for them to figure out what was being asked of them?

5. Once they’ve done both tests, they should score them and review their post-section responses

Here’s a breakdown of the different possible results of your review, and how you should proceed:

a) There is a clear winner in term of both score and test-taking experience: your decision is made. Prepare for and take that exam. 

b) There is no winner: you score similarly on both tests and neither feels better. If this is the case, then you should choose the exam that you feel you can improve most on. As a general guideline, it’s often more straightforward to improve on content than it is to improve on timing, so you may be better served choosing the test on which your timing was better. Frankly, though, there are many nuances, and you may benefit from speaking to a test-prep professional before making your final decision.

c) You score higher in one exam but you feel better on the other: you need to analyze the differences. What about the exams made you score differently? Feel differently? Use the answer sheet to review each incorrect answer, and use your post-section observations. Try to put your finger on what the differences were, and then choose the test that you feel will be able to prepare best for. Again, though, there are many nuances, and you may benefit from speaking to a test-prep professional before making your final decision.

Now that you and your student have clarity on which test will better serve them, it’s time to develop a test-prep plan. In our next post, we’ll get into specifics about how to proceed based on the diagnostic work you’ve done. Proceed with confidence! 

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Benjamin Morris

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