A Surprisingly Easy Way to Choose Between the ACT and SAT

“Should I take the ACT or the SAT?”  This question occupies the minds of high school students everywhere.  The ACT and SAT are standardized tests used in college admissions and almost every school will accept either one.  However, the tests are pretty different when it comes to format, content, structure and strategy.

For example, the SAT takes a quarter point off for incorrect answers while the ACT has no penalty for incorrect answers.  As a result, students should guess on any ACT question that they don’t know how to solve but should only guess on the SAT if they can confidently eliminate at least 2 answer choices.  Mixing these two strategies up could cost students points.

Despite there being a cornucopia of free information available about both the tests, students often have trouble deciding which test to take and which one to ultimately send to colleges.  “Which one will the college prefer?  Which one will I get a higher score on?”  These are questions that often linger on students’ minds but the former isn’t even an issue since there are scoring tables that convert between ACT and SAT scores.  For students who really want a fool-proof way to know which test to take, the solution is surprisingly simple:  take both!

In a recent article by the New York Times (Where the ACT and SAT Dominate), more and more students are submitting both an SAT score and an ACT score to colleges.  For example, the number of applicants who applied to Princeton who submitted both tests more than doubled from 2006 to 2012.  Some admissions officers have indicated that having an additional data point can sometimes be helpful in gauging the student’s candidacy.  A good ACT score might have a chance of being fluke, but a strong ACT and SAT score looks more convincing of a student’s ability.

There is a limitation to this strategy, of course.  High school students have classes, homework, projects and extracurricular activities to worry about on top of studying for standardized tests.  As a result, students need to be efficient in their study and focus on the test that they may need more help with.  To find out which test you are better at, take practice tests during your Sophomore year of high school.  A practice PSAT is offered by most schools and the PLAN test is the PSAT equivalent for the ACT.  These tests are shorter in length but feature the same types of questions as on the SAT and ACT.  After getting the results, you can then compare the scores using a conversion table and figure which test you’ll need more help with.

One last note — anecdotally, SAT scores have been more correlated to time spent in a test prep program than the ACT.  This does not necessarily mean that test prep is not effective for the ACT since there could be other factors at play.  For example, in some states in the middle of the US, the ACT takes the place of state high school exams that measure school performance.  As a result, there could be an incentive for schools to incorporate ACT content into regular classes, effectively creating their own test prep program.

When you’re studying for the tests, it’s recommended that you separate the study blocks and not study both tests at the same time.  The tests require different strategies and intermingling them will likely confuse you and result in less-than-ideal performance.

Plan on taking the SAT soon? We run a free online SAT prep seminar every few weeks. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

Jason Sun is the Director of College Prep for Veritas Prep. When he’s not in the office, he can be found competing in swing dance competitions or defending his title as a table tennis champion.