When it comes to the ACT and SAT, both exams are widely accepted by U.S. colleges, which often prompts students…
When it comes to the ACT and SAT, both exams are widely accepted by U.S. colleges, which often prompts students to ask: Which test should I take?
[READ: How to Tackle SAT, ACT Vocabulary Questions.]
The answer to that question lies in understanding the differences between the two tests.
Both college admissions exams remain popular even as many colleges have gone test-optional or test blind in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the class of 2022, 1.7 million high school students took the SAT at least once, up slightly from 1.5 million in the previous year’s class, according to College Board data. Nearly 1.35 million students in the class of 2022 took the ACT. Though still well below pre-pandemic levels, that was an increase of about 55,000 students from the year before, per ACT data.
It’s unclear how many students took both tests, but experts say it is common to do so.
“No college has a preference between the two tests,” says Ginger Fay, global director of partnerships at Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring Services. “They’re like two children. They love them both the same. They just want them to be good.”
The idea behind both exams is similar: to demonstrate college readiness. But the tests vary in structure and timing as well as content and scoring. Both tests serve as an indicator of a student’s critical thinking and analytical skills.
“No matter what happens, taking the tests and taking them seriously and giving them their due is paramount,” says Elizabeth Levine, an independent educational consultant and founder of Signature College Counseling in New York. “Even if a school is test-optional, it is always better to submit than not submit test scores, as long as you are at a minimum within the school’s mid 50% range of test scores. It will only help support your application.”
[See: 25 Colleges With the Highest SAT Scores.]
The SAT is offered by the nonprofit College Board, which also offers Advanced Placement exams and other testing services. The nonprofit ACT organization is more limited in scope, focusing largely on its namesake test.
ACT or SAT: Choosing Which Test to Take
Students hoping to find the easier testing option are out of luck.
“Unfortunately, these are both very high-stakes and tough tests, so I’m a bit sad to say that one is not particularly easier than the other,” says Laurel Hanson, director of college prep programs at Kaplan, a New York-based company that provides test prep and other educational services.
“Most students have a preference, but they are two hard exams.”
The SAT had long been seen as more of an aptitude test whereas the ACT has been more closely associated with testing students on their understanding of their high school curriculum. Although recent changes to the SAT have lessened that distinction, “even still, I think the ACT is a more curriculum-based assessment,” says Jaekyung Lee, professor of education at the University of Buffalo in New York.
While some students take both tests, experts say that isn’t always necessary, and preparing for both presents a challenge due to the differences in each test. Each requires different strategies, and it’s best to become well-versed in one instead of going back and forth between the two, Fay says.
To help students make their decision, experts suggest they begin by taking a full-length practice test for each test and see which is best suited for them.
“It’s easy to say take both and see what you score better on, and that’s fair, but what I would say is take both and see what you prefer,” Hanson says. “On either of these tests, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work in order to have that strong score that demonstrates what you’re capable of.”
The two exams may appeal to different types of students, experts say, though it’s important students understand possible misconceptions.
Because the ACT includes a science section, Brand says that typically leads students who excel in science and math to favor that test. The science section, however, is a combination of memorizing comprehension and data interpretation, experts say, adding that similar questions are embedded in other sections on the SAT.
“Your memorizing still has to be pretty high for you to understand the science in that section,” says Jolyn Brand, founder of Brand College Consulting. “One test isn’t normally stronger for one set of kids versus another. If kids want to take both, I normally suggest doing the practice test online or at home by yourself, maybe the summer before junior year. Score them both, see how you feel about both, then look up the equivalent scores.”
[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]
Deciding to Take or Skip the ACT Writing Test
The College Board announced in early 2021 that it was ending the SAT optional essay and subject tests. Currently, the ACT continues to offer its optional 40-minute writing test that accompanies the exam, though it costs test takers an extra $25.
Experts have different views on whether a student should take the optional writing portion.
“The benefit of taking it is that you have it in case it’s required anywhere,” says Erika Tyler-John, senior education manager at California-based Magoosh, an online test preparation company. She notes that most colleges do not require the essay as part of an application, but “if there’s a need for it somewhere, at least you have it in your back pocket. And maybe you do really well, and that’s one more plus on your application.”
Levine previously suggested students take the writing portion for similar reasons, but she says she no longer recommends it.
Hanson says students should check with schools they plan to apply to and see if they have a preference.
“If the school doesn’t have a preference, and the student feels comfortable that their English grades reflect well on their writing abilities, that can take off 45 minutes from their test time, which can be a real benefit to students,” she says.
Recent data shows that the number of ACT-takers choosing to complete the optional essay has dwindled. In the class of 2022, a little more than 333,000 students took the writing test, down from nearly 680,000 in 2020, according to ACT data.
SAT vs. ACT Score Conversion
For students interested in comparing scores on the SAT and ACT, the College Board and the ACT organization provide conversion charts to show how composite scores stack up. The table below offers a breakdown of this data.
For the SAT, total scores range from 400 to 1600; for the ACT, the composite score runs from 1 to 36. Those ranges do not include the optional ACT writing test, which is scored separately.
According to figures from both organizations, the average SAT test score for 2022 high school graduates was 1050, down from 1060 for the class of 2021. The average ACT score for the class of 2022 was 19.8, down from 20.3 for the class of 2021 and the lowest in 30 years.
“The impact of this pandemic on test score declines was bigger on the ACT as opposed to the SAT,” Lee notes. “During the pandemic period, most schools did remote learning, so there’s definitely a bigger adverse impact on some achievement in terms of the test scores.”
ACT vs. SAT Differences
The SAT takes three hours and the ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes, though the ACT’s 40-minute optional writing test would stretch that to a little more than three and a half hours.
The SAT features 154 questions vs. 215 for the ACT. Broken down by test components, the SAT has a 65-minute memorizing test, a 35-minute writing and language test and an 80-minute math section. The ACT is comprised of a 35-minute memorizing test, 45-minute English test, 60-minute math section and 35-minute science test.
While both tests take a similar amount of time, students should be aware that they have different pacing. Because the ACT includes more questions, students have less time to spend on each of them. Hanson says on average, students typically spend over a minute on a question on the SAT and under a minute per question on the ACT.
“That’s a big difference for students in terms of what they choose,” she says. “We really recommend that students try each. That’s ultimately going to be the best way to decide which is a better fit for you.”
[Read: How Long the SAT Is and How to Manage That Time.]
Some students prefer the predictability of the ACT, in which the four sections always come in the same order, whereas the order of sections changes on the SAT, Fay says. Others might prefer the SAT because each section is a little bit shorter, which may work better for their attention span, she says.
“There are some students who like the fact that you can have your calculator the whole time you’re doing math on the ACT,” she says. “On the SAT, there’s a section where you can have it and a section where you can’t.”
ACT and SAT Costs
The costs of the exams also vary and have increased in the past year. The SAT costs $60, up for $52 last year. The ACT costs $63 for only the exam, up from $55 last year, and $88 if the optional writing test is included, compared to $70 last year.
Additional fees may apply for other options, such as late registration. Students may also be able to take the SAT or ACT for free with state support or fee waivers.
How to Be Successful on the ACT or SAT
Regardless of which test students decide to take, the goal is the same: earning a score that shows college readiness.
[READ: What to know about SAT prep classes.]
To help students be successful, experts offer strategic test-prep tips. Some are simple, such as bringing a snack on test day and taking breaks when offered. Others require much more time and deliberation on the part of the student, such as identifying and working on weak spots in testing.
One best practice recommended by experts is to study well ahead of the test date. Tyler-John recommends students complete a practice test every other week if they can, then analyze the results.
“There’s part of the test that’s the content, and there’s part of the test that’s the test,” Tyler-John says, adding that practicing time management is also crucial. “Practice for the test. Review your mistakes.”
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ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 12/01/22: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.