Preparing for College: ACT or SAT?

Today’s post is written by guest author, and CPLS Senior, Emma Nasseri

Many students and parents are understandably overwhelmed at the mere mention of the ACT and SAT. As inboxes flood with emails pressuring high schoolers to register for upcoming test dates, it’s important for students to be well-informed and well-prepared about what standardized testing entails.

            Test prep begins with understanding the nature of each test. The ACT is composed of four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT covers the same material, but is structured differently. The SAT’s sections are Reading, Writing and Language, and Math (divided into subsections of with and without a calculator). Neither test penalizes incorrect answers. Both the ACT and SAT have an optional writing section, which some schools require, but generally isn’t necessary. Since all conventional universities will accept scores from either test and the tests cover almost all of the same material, there is no inherent advantage to taking one test over the other. However, different types of students tend to do better on either the ACT or the SAT and taking both can allow students to see which test best showcases their strengths.

            Depending on the student, the SAT might showcase their strengths better. For example, the SAT might be the best option for slower test takers, since it allows about 40% more time per question in the Reading section, 33% more time for Writing and Language, 25% more time for Math (without a calculator), and 45% more time for Math (with a calculator.) Additionally, since it provides test-takers with a diagram of several important math formulas, the SAT might be a better option for students who struggle to memorize equations. Further, while the ACT’s Math section gives five possible answers, the SAT only gives four. If a student were to guess on a math question, they would have a higher chance of getting the correct answer on the SAT. For students concerned about time management, memorizing formulas, or having to guess, the SAT might be a better test.

            On the other hand, students with different skills might score higher on the ACT. One key difference between the tests is that the ACT has a Science section. Since standardized tests try to assess students as fairly as possible, the questions in this section tend to measure how well one can read scientific charts and graphs rather than one’s scientific knowledge. When studying for the Science section of the ACT, memorizing the periodic table of elements won’t be as helpful as taking practice tests to become more familiar with graph reading and question styles. The SAT also has reading questions covering scientific topics, but to a lesser extent. Another difference between the tests is that the ACT is completely multiple choice, whereas about 22% of the SAT’s math questions are grid-ins. Students who rely more on the guidance of the given multiple-choice answers will likely prefer the structure of the ACT’s math questions. One additional advantage of the ACT for CPLS students is that there are more options for testing locations for the ACT in Topeka than the SAT, due to the ACT’s popularity as the mainstream standardized assessment in the midwest.

            Since both of these tests can require a notable investment of time, money, effort from both students and parents, it is important to make the most of each test. For this reason, the best way to decide which test is best is to take an official SAT and ACT practice test at home and compare scores with a conversion chart. Many students are surprised to see that their scores improve when they don’t settle for the bare minimum in test prep, and instead do their research to really find out what test is best for them.

Here are several helpful resources for preparing for either test you, or your student, register to take.

ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart

Free, online SAT Practice Tests

Free, printable ACT Practice Tests