Years ago, colleges in the Midwest and South favored the ACT, while schools on both coasts preferred the SAT. Now, every college will accept either test, and more students take the ACT. While both are used for the same purpose, to help predict the likelihood of a student’s success in college, they are very different tests. Here's why:
The SAT is considered a reasoning based test, requiring critical thinking and problem -solving. The ACT is a curriculum based test, and strong students may find they do better on the ACT, which is more closely aligned with what they have learned in school.
The pacing is also different on the two exams. The ACT has fewer sections, but each one is longer. While the SAT is 20 minutes longer in total, students who like a faster pace and get impatient working on one section for a long time may prefer the SAT’s frequent section changes. Longer sections on the ACT do not mean you can take your time as the ACT actually allows less time per question.
The ACT essay prompt is usually more related to life in high school, and while it asks for your opinion, a successful essay includes creative thinking rather than just agreeing or disagreeing with a premise. Test preparation companies often suggest that students prepare for the SAT essay by coming up with several books and moments in history that can be used to support
an argument in response to essay prompts that tend to be more broad.
On the multiple choice writing section, the SAT requires more vocabulary, whereas the ACT emphasizes punctuation. If your reading skills are stronger than your vocabulary, you may do better on the ACT. While the ACT has a science section, the questions ask you to read graphs and interpret data rather than to apply scientific knowledge. The science section is a form of critical reading and the scores are often similar to those in critical reading.
The math section of the SAT is not difficult but it is tricky. A few SAT math questions require intermediate algebra, but most can be solved with basic arithmetic, algebra and geometry. The ACT includes more advanced math, and a few questions require some trigonometry. If you do well in math classes, the more straightforward ACT could be a better fit. Students who are problem-solvers and who use short cuts often do well on the SAT. Unlike a math test you take in school, you don’t need to show your work. A student who works backward, trying out each of the five answer choices rather than struggling to come up with an algebraic equation for a word problem, may be less likely to make mistakes.
Students who have great study habits and do well on finals are likely to do well on the ACT. Since the exam is based on what you have learned in school, many students take the exam without much preparation. Completing at least one practice test so that you know what to expect will help you feel more confident going into the exam.
Because the SAT does not look like tests you take in school, students often panic when they first encounter the exam. But since the SAT is not dependent on years of accumulated knowledge, it is possible to raise your scores fairly quickly. After five or six practice tests, you will start to recognize types of questions, and once the test is more familiar, anxiety levels go down.
While most students apply to colleges that require standardized test scores, more colleges adopt test-optional admissions policies each year. You can get a full list of schools that do not require standardized tests for admission at www.fairtest.org. Find at least one school that is a good fit for you that does not require testing, and then you can go into these tests knowing that whatever happens, you can still go to a college you like. That will lower your
anxiety level and enable you to do your best on the exams.