It used to be that you didn’t have a choice. Your options for taking either the ACT or SAT depended on where you lived. East and West coast students took the SAT and students in the Midwest took the ACT. It’s not that way anymore. Students in any geographical area in the United States can now choose one or the other. If you are getting ready to take a college readiness exam, how do you decide? Is it better to take both and cover all your bases? Do college admission officers place more weight on one than the other? Are there differences between the SAT and ACT? The answers may surprise you.
Are There Differences Between the ACT and SAT?
There are fundamental differences between the ACT and SAT. Both tests are timed, but the ACT is 20 minutes longer at 3 hours and 45 minutes than the ACT. The SAT consists of 10 sections, three each in Math, Writing and English and one Experimental, which is not scored. The ACT has four sections, one each in Math, English, Science and Reading and includes an optional Writing test. The SAT does not have a Science section. Each section on the ACT is scored and then averaged for a composite score of 1 to 36. The ACT does not penalize for wrong answers. The SAT totals the scores for each section. Total scores range from 600 to 2400. There is a quarter point deduction for each wrong answer on the SAT, except for the grid-in Math questions. Both the ACT and SAT allow you to choose which total or composite score to send to colleges, but some schools require all SAT results, not just your best score.
The exams differ not only structurally, but philosophically as well. The ACT is more content-based, evaluating what a student knows. The SAT is geared more toward reasoning ability. To measure verbal skills, the SAT places heavy emphasis on vocabulary. The ACT focuses on punctuation, syntax and grammar. ACT questions are straightforward, but the SAT uses puzzle-like questions designed to gauge reasoning skills. The Writing section of the ACT is optional, scored separately and is not included as part of the composite score. The SAT essay is required and is factored into the total score.
College admissions officials look at SAT and ACT test scores differently. Administrators tend to look at each section score when evaluating a student’s SAT test results, rather than the total. The ACT is an assessment of overall capability and the composite score is considered more important than section scores.
Which Should You Choose?
Since both tests are accepted at most colleges, it makes sense to take the test that best suits your strengths and abilities. If writing and vocabulary are your strong points, but science leaves you cold, the SAT may be your best choice. If you are a high achiever and know your subjects inside and out, you may do better with the ACT.
One of the best ways to learn more about the ACT and SAT is by taking the PLAN and PSAT. Typically offered during a student’s sophomore or junior year, the tests give you the opportunity to take a timed test under genuine ACT and SAT exam conditions. The PLAN is administered by ACT, Inc., the same company that administers the ACT. The PSAT is similar to the SAT. The College Board administers both. Although shorter and easier than the ACT and SAT, the tests serve as a benchmark from which you can plan the rest of your high school curriculum to address specific academic areas.
Another great way to decide which test to take is to take actual ACT and SAT practice tests. Retired exams are available online and in publications. Familiarizing yourself with both exams gives you a feel for the way they are structured and helps you determine which exam best fits your personality and abilities.
Should you take both? Some people do. Students who are trying to gain admission to highly competitive schools sometimes take both the ACT and SAT and send both scores. It’s not necessary to take both; in fact, it’s usually better to put all of your efforts into one or the other. Most colleges accept both and give them equal weight. It is advisable to check your chosen school’s admission requirements before deciding, however. They may have specific testing requirements you should be aware of.
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