A Student’s Guide to Comparing The SAT and ACT

High school students across the United States think about the same thing during their junior and senior years: college admission. Students study hard and fill their schedules with academically challenging courses and fun extra-curricular activities to make their transcripts stand out from the crowd. However, the transcript isn’t the only important piece of the admissions process. Colleges and universities often look at scores earned on standardized academic tests like the SAT and ACT to determine applicant if the applicant is a fit for their institution. Students should be presented in the best possible way to the colleges of their choice. By knowing the subject matter and style of each exam, college hopefuls are able to compare the two tests in order to discover which will highlight their abilities the best.

Both the SAT and ACT tests are timed academic achievement exams. Each exam tests on the areas of study that will help students be successful in higher education, specifically math and language arts. However, each test has a distinct personality of its own. The SAT exam is administered by the College Board and offered to students at various times throughout the year. Similarly, the ACT exam is administered six times throughout the school year. Each exam is similarly structured to cover math, reading, and language arts. However, this is where the similarity ends. Consider comparing each exam side by side to determine which fits best based on the student’s testing preference or additional considerations such as Attention Deficit Disorder or other learning challenges.

The SAT, a reasoning-based exam, adds a timed, short essay to evaluate writing skills while the ACT, a content-based exam, includes a natural science section to gauge knowledge and ability to reason scientifically. Exam styles can differ in both the length of testing time and the types of questions asked. For those students who need breaks between sections, the SAT will likely be a good choice. However, if pushing through to the end is a better style, the longer sections in the ACT may feel like a better fit. In addition to the timing of the test, consider the structure of the test questions on each exam individually. The ACT exam presents information through multiple choice questions throughout the exam with questions moving from easier to harder in content. In contrast, the SAT includes some questions that require short answers and essays while mixing content of all difficulty levels throughout the exam. By knowing the differences between the two tests, students are able to see which will best fit their testing style.

After deciding which exam to take, students can move to the second step of the exam process: preparation. Preparation is the key to both SAT and ACT testing success. First, prepare for the exam by being relaxed. While the exam is important, anxiety can cause students to have lower scores. Preparation can help eliminate this anxiety as can relaxation techniques, proper sleep, and a healthy breakfast on testing day. Understanding basic testing techniques can also be helpful. Read through directions slowly, and eliminate the incorrect answer choices. Create a plan to cover each area included on the exam. Leave enough time between test registration and exam day to become comfortable with the exam sections and requirements. Each testing organization offers helpful daily vocabulary or sample test questions to help with preparation. Many times local schools and libraries offer free online or live events to teach testing skills and allow for the opportunity to take practice exams. Additionally, many organizations provide free online resources to help students with math and science preparation. To prepare for the writing portion of the exams, practice preparing outlines and essays based on historical or scientific questions or events. Learn to write under timed conditions by practicing short essays on a variety of topics and reading samples.

Students taking the SAT or ACT exam can feel confident on test day after preparing themselves first by comparing the exams and then by brushing up on their test taking skills. No matter which exam is chosen, each will help colleges get to know their applicants a little better. Remember that the score received isn’t necessarily the final word on the exam experience. Each test allows for multiple attempts. If the score isn’t as high as expected and the admissions calendar allows it, take the exam again after more preparation. The SAT and ACT exam score is only one piece of the admission picture students provide to colleges; with preparation, that picture can be a work of art.

By Scott Shrum