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  • Paul Nicholsen

Should I take the ACT or the SAT? Or both?

Updated: Nov 10

If you're planning to go to college, you know you've got to suffer through either the SAT or the ACT. And you've probably heard a lot of conflicting advice as to which test is the better one for you to take.

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First things first, spoiler alert: It doesn't matter all that much! There are differences between the two tests, which we'll discuss, but at the end of the day your score percentiles will probably be comparable. Personally, I think it's a matter of which one feels better to you. Remember that they're all graded on a curve, meaning your score is a comparison to everyone else who took the test that day. If the test is a little harder or easier than normal, then that's true for everyone taking it and your score will be adjusted accordingly. So everything you hear about one test being easier or harder than the other is just people who don't understand basic statistics (Take it in college if you haven't already. It's worth knowing, and way too many people don't <gets off soapbox>)


That being said, you as an individual have strengths and weaknesses which might make one test a better fit than the other. Let's compare and contrast a few key areas to help you make up your mind:


Essay


As of January 2021, the SAT no longer offers the essay portion of the test. For now, the ACT still has an optional essay. If you really need the essay for a specific college, you'll have to go with the ACT, but once the SAT got out of the essay game most colleges dropped the requirement.


Time per question


SAT

Section

Number of questions

Length of section (min)

Questions per minute

Reading

52

65

52 / 65 = 0.80

Writing

44

35

44 / 35 ≈ 1.26

Math - No Calc

20

25

20 / 25 = 0.80

Math - Calc

38

55

38 / 55 ≈ 0.69


​​ACT

Section

Number of questions

Length of section (min)

Questions per minute

English

75

45

75 / 45 ≈ 1.67

Math

60

60

60 / 60 = 1.00

Reading

40

35

40 / 35 ≈ 1.14

Science

40

35

40 / 35 ≈ 1.14

When you're taking the ACT, you've got to move. Not that the SAT is a leisurely stroll, but you definitely get more time per question. One of the biggest complaints I see with the ACT is timing--if you're not good at maintaining a steady pace and saving harder questions for the end, the SAT might be a better fit for you.


Science


The ACT has a science section which may seem great/terrible depending on your opinion of science, but this is more reading comprehension than anything else. You do not need pre-existing science knowledge for this section. This section is testing your ability to read a few scientific passages--along with associated charts and graphs--and answer questions based on what you've read. A working knowledge of basic scientific vocabulary is helpful, but not necessary. The biggest problem most students have on this section is one of timing. You have to move fast in this section, even though it can sometimes take time to decipher the graphs and diagrams. For a lot of students, this section is the dealbreaker that pushes them toward the SAT.


Math (if you're at least pretty OK in math)


Both tests cover roughly the same amount of content. The ACT has a few more advanced topics including:

  • Logarithms (logs)

  • Trigonometry (SAT will test you on SOHCAHTOA; ACT goes a little farther including graphs of trigonometric functions)

  • Complex numbers (it's just i, which is a fancy special number but for the purposes of the ACT it's just a regular variable like any other. Don't worry about it).

The SAT math questions are just a little "trickier" than the ACT math questions. Although they more or less cover the same skills, the SAT loves setting traps to catch students who aren't reading carefully.



Also, the SAT has a no-calculator section, while the math section on the ACT is all about the calculator. SAT also has some fill-in-the-grid questions while ACT is all multiple choice.


So what's the verdict? Can be a tough call. If you're the type that speeds through a math test and you're more likely to make a careless error than run out of time, go for the ACT: it's more straight-forward and you'll have the calculator. If you're the type of person who goes a little slower and is more careful, go for the SAT.


Math (if you really hate math)


So, if you are one of those people for whom math has just never made sense, I sympathize. First off, I'd say you don't have to just accept that. I've worked with so many students over the years who just had a bad third grade math teacher, or were sick when fractions were introduced, or for whatever reason just missed some fundamental math block and were never able to catch up. With a little personal coaching (in an environment where you can feel comfortable to ask your questions) we can find those gaps and help you fill them in.


(If this were a verbal test question, they'd ask you if the writer should delete the above paragraph, and the answer would be "YES -- it introduces a new argument unrelated to the main topic". But I'm OK with it because it's important and if you've read this far, you must think I'm not completely clueless.)


At any rate, hopefully even the least math-inclined out there will understand that 2 out of 4 sections devoted to SAT math is twice as many as the ACT's 1 out of 4, so if you know math is going to bring down your score, the ACT may be the way to go. The science portion has a decent amount of math in the forms of charts and graphs, but it's nothing compared to a full-on math section.


So.... what?


That makes a bunch of points in favor of the SAT, and a bunch for the ACT, all based on whether you personally find a given point a pro or a con. Helpful, I know.

Again, I want to drive home that your scores on the two tests will likely be comparable, but maybe not. The only way to find out is to take a full practice test of each exam, in conditions as close to the real thing as possible. Pick a day where you can wake up early and take the full timed test with no interruptions. Fill out the bubble sheet for your answers. Keep your breaks 5-10 minutes long (set a timer!). Leave your phone and all other devices (except your calculator) in another room. Of course, if you have the time to take an officially proctored test then go with the real thing!


And then do it again the next week with the other test! You'll probably figure this out for yourself by the time you get to the end of the first test, but do not try to do these both on the same day. Give your brain a break!


Then take the scores, and compare them using the free tool found on the ACT website. Is one score significantly higher than the other? Then you have your answer as to which test you take. Are they about the same? Then trust your instincts and take the test that you felt better taking.


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Can I take both tests?

I mean, you can. Should you? I don't think so. Aside from the fact that it's an extra few Saturdays spent taking a standardized test, preparation for the two exams is a little different. You can try both out while you're making your choice, but you should eventually focus your prep work on one or the other.


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So there you have it. Which test should you take? The very unhelpful answer is: it depends. Whether you're struggling to make the decision or you've made your choice and you're ready to start preparing, contact us by emailing info@districtscholars.com or checking us out at www.districtscholars.com and we'll be happy to help you look at your strengths and weaknesses so you can tackle the test with skill and confidence!


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