One of the questions nearly every college-bound student wrestles with is which college entrance examination is right for them. There are a number of widely-spouted, all-encompassing statements about these tests flying around, such as one test is a skills test and the other is an aptitude test, or one test is more suited to creative thinkers than the other.
The long and the short of it is that BOTH tests are skills tests and test a student’s ability to take each test. The best way to determine which test is right for a student is to take a practice test of each and see which test taking experience yields the highest score. With that said, here are a few important things to know when considering which test is right for a perspective student.
1) The SAT and ACT are both accepted by every top university.
Since about 2007, every reputable, four-year college has accepted both entrance examinations, however there are some differences in the exact requirements for submitting each test between schools. For example, Harvard College requires the SAT or ACT, with a writing component, and two SAT subject tests (they state the subject tests are optional if taking them poses a financial hardship), whereas Brown University does not require two SAT subject tests if the student submits an ACT score (Brown will also stop requiring the writing component of the SAT when it becomes optional in the next year).
The main thing to be aware of is what the individual requirements of the school or schools to which a student hopes to apply are. In general, taking the SAT or ACT, with the writing component, and two SAT II subject tests will cover all bases for most schools.
2) The SAT Math slightly favors lateral thinking, but requires less specific knowledge.
The above statement is somewhat difficult to quantify and seems to be changing as College Board unveils its new SAT for 2016, however it has generally been the case that the most difficult questions on the SAT require more creative problem solving, such as drawing in lines and figures that are not given by the problems, and finding patterns that can be applied to solve seemingly untenable problems.
The ACT, however, tends to favor integration of different concepts in their difficult questions as well as some simple trigonometric knowledge, such as the Law of Sines and Co-Sines, and basic knowledge of sine co-sine and tangents and their inverses.
Neither requires higher knowledge than is covered in a basic Algebra 2 and Geometry class, and neither requires any knowledge of Calculus or Advanced Statistics. The ACT is also more likely to require the use of a calculator to determine an exact value, while the SAT favors abstract problems using variables and fractions that require no calculator use.
3) The ACT favors punctuation errors (especially commas), while the SAT favors conjugation and structure errors.
In general, the ACT writing is slightly more straight forward as it is all based on finding errors in and improving the structure of a passage. The ACT writing is very similar to the third portion of the SAT writing section, where a student must improve a short passage. The main difference between the two, is that the ACT tests on a wider variety of punctuation errors and favors comma errors, while the SAT tends to focus on structural and conjugation errors. The SAT only really tests on commas in relation to their roll separating clauses.
4) The SAT Reading is slightly more straightforward than the ACT Reading.
The two reading sections of these tests are very similar – the only real discernible difference is that the SAT reading section is set up so the questions are chronologically related to the passage. That is to say, the questions can be answered as the student reads the passage and the order of the questions should more or less follow the order of the passage. The only questions that this does not apply to on the SAT are the questions which ask the passage’s main idea, and these can simply be skipped and returned to after reading the entire passage.
The ACT, however, is not chronological and therefore requires a student to read the whole passage first and then go back to answer each specific question. This can be an issue for many students who have problems with time management on standardized tests.
5) The ACT has a Science section, but requires very little specific science knowledge.
Apart from general scientific knowledge, such as how to read a graph and what entropy is, the scientific section of the ACT is really just a scientific reading test. This section does not require much specific knowledge about any scientific field, and is more similar to the reading comprehension section of the SAT or ACT than a true science test.
6) The ACT has an optional writing section.
The Writing Section on the ACT (and the newly revamped SAT) is optional, but is strongly encouraged, if not required, by most top schools. The main difference between the ACT and the SAT essay is the ACT favors a full paragraph acknowledging the opposing viewpoint to the one that the student chooses to argue. The ACT also gives the student the main arguments for each side, which requires less spontaneous generation of arguments by students.
7) The ACT has no penalty for guessing wrong answers.
Students should answer every question on the ACT, however they should only answer a question on the SAT if they can eliminate two or more answer choices.
8) The ACT is in four (or five if a student elects to do the writing) longer sections, whereas the SAT is split up into ten shorter sections.
The fact that the ACT is broken up into only five sections means that it is potentially easier to get stuck on difficult problems or mismanage time and not complete a large portion of the test. It is VERY important to skip problems that seem too difficult to attempt on the ACT because lingering on such problems early on in the test can be problematic for the whole section.
The SAT is also challenging in terms of time management, but stopping on one question that requires a lot of time early on in a section is less likely to hurt the entirety of a student’s score because the sections are more broken up. The SAT also requires students to shift between topics more quickly, so students who enjoy a variety of questions as opposed to focusing on only one academic area at a time tend to favor the SAT.
As stated above, the SAT and ACT are both tests that require a student to understand the structure of the test being taken, and how to best approach the question types. The best way to determine which test is best for which student is to take a free practice test, widely available online or through schools, and see which test seems to be a better fit. From there, it is simply a matter of learning the techniques that are useful to approaching each exam, and using them to conquer the test!
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.