In most high schools in the United States, juniors and seniors naturally tend towards either the ACT or the SAT, depending on the region. In the Bay Area, for instance, far more college-bound students take the SAT than the ACT, for no apparent reason besides the fact that most of their peers are taking the SAT. In Southern states, the ACT is more dominant. Region, however, should not be the determining factor in choosing between these two tests; their subject matter, style, and requirements differ in important ways that many students don’t consider.
I’ve taken both. Only my SAT score, however, was sent along with my college applications. (My ACT score was released long after my college acceptance). I originally took the SAT instead of the ACT just because everyone I knew was taking the SAT, and because the SAT was offered on a more convenient day in my schedule. Looking back, I realize this was a poor decision on my part. If I had done my research, I would have quickly realized that I as a student was far better suited to the ACT than to the SAT, and would have saved myself quite a lot of worry. Here are the things I should have considered:
1. The ACT has a science section.
This is arguably the most famous difference between the tests. In high school, I liked reading much more than I liked science, so I originally dismissed the ACT entirely. My mistake: I didn’t realize that the ACT doesn’t actually require test-takers to know any complicated science concepts. In fact, it’s more like a reading test than a science test. As long as test-takers are able to read simple graphs and tables, they need only know some basic scientific vocabulary and concepts. Even those are often defined and explained within ACT passages themselves.
2. The SAT tests complicated vocabulary and focuses more on reading comprehension.
Students who lack confidence in their reading comprehension skills or who do not want to deal with complicated vocabulary should strongly consider taking the ACT instead.
3. The ACT tests more complicated math.
Conversely, students who are not comfortable with trigonometry should consider opting for the SAT.
4. The ACT lets you skip the essay.
The SAT essay is mandatory, while the ACT essay is optional. I recommend writing the essay if you take the ACT, but in the interest of making informed choices, you should be aware that the section is not required.
5. The SAT is longer.
If you have trouble sitting still for more than three hours, the ACT might be a better option for you.
6. The ACT was designed as an achievement test, while the SAT was designed as a reasoning test.
In other words, material on the ACT will more closely resemble the work that most high school students do in daily classes, while the SAT will challenge them to approach familiar subjects in less conventional ways.
7. US colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT, and treat the tests equally.
Choosing one over the other will not necessarily make your application more or less impressive to an admissions office. Take whichever test you believe suits you better.
8. Practice tests and questions are available for both the SAT and the ACT.
These are available on the official SAT and ACT websites and in test prep books and courses. Instead of guessing which you might perform better on, you can sample each and compare your scores.
9. If you still have trouble deciding, you have the option of taking both tests.
This will likely involve more study and more test fees, but will allow you the freedom to try both options and submit whichever test score is higher.
The choice between the ACT and the SAT offers students a valuable chance to play to their strengths, and to play down their weaker subject areas. Taking advantage of that opportunity can save time, effort, stress, and test prep money. Trust me; your future self will thank you for it.
Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.