ACT vs. SAT: Which Test Is Best For You?


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College admissions testing is a rite of passage for millions of high school students each year, yet many parents and students remain confused about these important exams. Much of this misinformation has become part of college admissions lore – we’re here to set the record straight.

Myth #1 – The ACT is easier than the SAT: Although some students find the ACT to be less of a challenge, the ACT is not actually easier than the SAT. The two tests are designed differently so that they test different skills. As a result, some students will find one test to be easier than the other. For example:

  • The ACT is shorter than the SAT (2 hours 55 minutes vs. 3 hours 45 minutes), however the ACT has 215 questions versus the SAT’s 140 questions. ACT provides much less time to answer each question.
  • SAT verbal focuses on vocabulary while ACT verbal focuses on grammar and syntax
  • ACT math includes trigonometry while the SAT does not
  • ACT questions are more straightforward in style while SAT questions tend to focus on problem solving or critical thinking skills

Because all students have different skill sets, students should practice with both tests before deciding which to take – some will find the SAT easier, some will find the ACT easier. Testing experts and C2 recommend that students prepare for both tests and send their strongest test score to the colleges of their choice.

Myth #2 – Girls do better on the ACT and boys do better on the SAT: This myth stems from analyses of test scores which tend to show that girls perform slightly better on the ACT. In truth, boys tend to outperform girls on almost all standardized tests, including both the SAT and the ACT. All students are individual – some will do better on one test or the other, but gender cannot predict performance on college admissions tests.

Myth #3 – The ACT and SAT are accurate measures of future success: The ACT and the SAT measure how well you prepared for the test – and that’s about it. The only way to be certain of a strong score is thorough exam preparation. Quite simply, the more time you can spend preparing, the higher your score can be. For example, C2 preps thousands of middle school students each year for the SAT in order to compete for admission at summer programs such as TIP and CTY. When these students take their actual SATs on high school for college admissions, they score 400 points above the average high school student simply because they have spent so long preparing for the test.

Myth #4 – The ACT is based on high school curriculum: The origin of this myth is easy to spot given that ACT, Inc. states on its website that the test is designed to follow high school curricula. However, since high school curricula are not standardized nationwide, it is impossible for a national standardized test such as the ACT to truly follow high school standards. Instead, the ACT tests a student’s skill with grammar and mechanics, reading comprehension, and math ability. For proof simply look at the ACT science section, which requires little or no actual science knowledge.

Myth #5 – You have to be good at science to take the ACT: Unlike the SAT, the ACT does contain a science section, but this section doesn’t really test a student’s science knowledge. Instead, it primarily tests a student’s reading comprehension and analysis skills. The questions generally ask the student to interpret either a written passage or a data chart or diagram, thus previous science knowledge is not necessary for success.

Myth #6 – The ACT is a substitute for both the SAT Reasoning and the SAT Subject Tests: Every single college or university will accept the ACT in place of the SAT Reasoning (SAT I) test; the relationship between the ACT and SAT Subject Tests (SAT IIs) is a little more complicated. Many colleges and universities require SAT II scores for certain subjects, while other schools “strongly recommend” SAT IIs and still others don’t even ask for SAT II scores. Of those colleges which require or recommend SAT IIs, the vast majority do not accept ACT scores as a substitute, and among the nation’s more selective schools the SAT IIs cannot be replaced. It is VERY IMPORTANT to check the requirements for each school that your child hopes to apply to so that you can ensure that your child takes all of the required/recommended tests.

Myth #7 – You shouldn’t bother taking the ACT essay since it’s optional: Yes, the ACT essay is optional, but many colleges require the writing section of the test and still others “strongly recommend” that students take the writing section. We strongly recommend that students take the essay portion of the ACT just to make sure that all bases are covered – it is better to have the score and not need it than to need the score and not have it!

Myth #8 – Colleges create your “super score” by taking your best score from each section of the ACT or SAT: This is a dangerous myth because the two tests have very different score report policies and because schools tend to look at the scores differently.

  • On the ACT: Schools tend to look only at the composite score rather than at the scores for individual sections. ACT has always offered score choice, which means that you can take the test multiple times and choose which test score you want to report. You cannot pick and choose which section scores to send (for example, you cannot send your reading score from one test and your science score from another test), but you can choose to only report your highest composite score.
  • On the SAT: The SAT is a different animal. In 2009, the College Board instituted Score Choice for the SAT. However, Score Choice has its ups and downs. On the one hand, the program decreases stress by allowing students to keep low test scores hidden from colleges. On the other hand, colleges have widely varying policies regarding Score Choice. For example, Stanford rejects score choice and requires that students submit all test scores while Harvard accepts Score Choice. Moreover, some schools really will combine SAT scores from multiple tests in order to create your “super score”, but students who opt to use Score Choice miss out on this benefit.

Myth #9 – It’s easy to get extended time on the ACT and SAT: This is only partially true – it’s relatively easy to qualify for extended time on the SAT, but not on the ACT. For the SAT, students and parents may request extended time without the assistance of their school, whereas the ACT requires that students have appropriate documentation on file at their school. This is partially because the ACT is more of a sprint. As we noted earlier, the ACT allows for less time per question than the SAT does; the SAT is a more methodical problem solving test while the ACT focuses on testing how quickly you can take in and process information.

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