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There comes a time in all of our respective lives when we are forced to make important decisions.  These choices are shaped by who we are and who we’d like to become.  Rolling Stones or The Beatles?  Chocolate or vanilla?  Yankees or Mets?  And, of course, the ultimate head-to-head challenge: the SAT or ACT?

Yes, regardless of last name or zip code, the SAT/ACT conundrum is one that affects nearly all college-bound students.  The difference between who sat for which test used to be determined by simple geography. Historically, the ACT was mainly administered in the Midwest while the SAT was typically the provenance of both coasts.  However, with the majority of universities now accepting either exam, the decision lies more squarely with individual students.  So, how do you decide what’s best for you?  Well, consider the following:

The questions on the ACT are more direct.

The SAT is notorious for its complicated and crafty wording.  Test takers often don’t instantly (or intuitively) know what they’re being asked.  Conversely, the ACT is far more straightforward.  Students don’t need to spend a lot of time breaking down the question; they can get right to solving the problem.

The two exams are scored differently.

Though you technically receive a combined score for both SAT tests, admissions officers tend to consider how you fared on each section of the SAT.  However, with the ACT, the focus is typically on your composite score.  Perhaps more importantly, the SAT penalizes students who answer incorrectly.  The ACT simply discards wrong answers before calculating your results.  Finally, the SAT is based out of a total 2400 points while the top ACT score is 36.

The content varies between the tests.

The SAT and ACT are both designed to predict success in college and serve as a common denominator among applicants.  However, the material on each test is far from identical.  To begin with, the math section of the ACT is slightly more advanced, covering concepts in trigonometry.  The SAT only involves algebra and geometry.  Additionally, the math on the ACT is all multiple choice.  On the contrary, there’s a portion of the SAT that calls for the test taker to generate answers by showing his/her work. 

The exams also differ when it comes to the English/verbal sections.  The SAT is heavily focused on vocabulary (shout out to all you literary types) while the ACT is more concerned with grammar and syntax.  Moreover, when it comes to the SATs, the writing test is mandatory.  The ACTs allow students to opt out.  Further, the writing score is not factored into your composite score; schools will see it listed separately.

Finally, the ACT contains a science portion while the SAT is only math and verbal reasoning.  Fear not; you won’t be tested on specific facts/concepts such as the process of photosynthesis or how to identify a proton. Instead, this section simply tests a student’s reading and reasoning skills.

The layout and pacing vary between tests.

The ACT has students tackle the exam subject by subject.  This means that you complete the English portion in its entirety before moving on to science or math.  In contrast, the SATs have the test takers switch back and forth between math and verbal reasoning.  Some students are able to change gears with ease while others prefer to focus on one subject and then be done.

Additionally, the ACT clocks in as a slightly shorter test (time-wise).  This fact holds great appeal to students who become restless easily.  But, here’s the rub: the ACT actually features a greater number of questions. However, we can assure you that both tests do provide ample time for completion.

Ultimately, the SAT and ACT have independent testing philosophies.

Distilled down to its essence, the SAT is designed to test your problem-solving and innate intellectual abilities. The ACT, on the other hand, strives to evaluate the knowledge that you’ve acquired thus far.

When it comes to deciding which test to take, there’s really no right or wrong answer (unless the schools to which you’re applying maintain specific requirements).  By and large, results don’t differ dramatically between tests.  We recommend sitting for both the PSAT and the PLAN exams.  This will give you a feel for what the actual testing environment will be like and you’ll be able to determine the test with which you feel most comfortable.  Additionally, the results will be indicative of how you’ll fare when the real deal rolls around.  Of course, regardless of what you eventually decide, you should plan on logging some test prep time.  After all, nothing beats the confidence you derive from being prepared.



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Don Munce