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SAT or ACT? 5 Ways to Determine Which to Take

Now that the school year is upon us, many students will be asking themselves the $50 question: Which college admissions test should they take? SAT or ACT?

Seemingly similar on the surface, these exams have many nuances that separate them from each other and, ultimately, make them better suited for different kinds of test-takers.

If you have just begun your adventures in test prep, you may need to determine which is best for you. How do you go about doing that? Well, look at these five key differences:

1. SAT tests critical thinking. ACT tests speed.

For the longest time, the ACT has had the reputation of “the easier test.” While in many ways, this is largely true, the underlying idea still misses some realities. The SAT and the ACT have a noticeable difference in how they treat time; in other words, you have a lot more time to complete problems on the SAT than you do on the ACT.

There is a reason for that. The SAT requires more thinking and interpretation for its questions, especially in critical reading and math, than does the ACT. The ACT will give students straightforward problems but want them solved at lightning fast speeds. If you find yourself able to keep up with quick-paced tests, then the ACT may be your exam; however, if you need some time to consider your answers, the SAT might be better.

2. ACT balances Math/Sci and ELA content and scores. SAT is more math focused.

The ACT includes four subjects: English, math, reading, and science (plus an optional essay). These subjects are equally weighted in the “1-36” composite score. If you are someone who does better with a diverse group of subjects, then the ACT will be more aligned with your thinking.

The SAT includes three subjects (plus an optional essay): writing, critical reading, and math. Critical reading and writing are combined into a single “200-800” score, and math is its own separate “200-800” score. If you have a stronger background with mathematics, then SAT is the test to take. This is also worth noting: SAT includes mathematical elements throughout the test; for example, you have to read graphics in the writing and reading sections.

3. SAT Critical Reading is about analysis. ACT Reading is about comprehension.

As I stated earlier, SAT is more focused on critical thinking, and that shows in how their critical reading questions are formatted. The SAT doesn’t want to know that you read and understand the basics of the passage; it wants to know if you can explain the function of sentences and how evidence is used, for example. A person who reads the passage and never looks back while answering the questions is bound to have a terrible reading score.

The ACT is almost the complete opposite: the focus is less on deep thinking and more on knowing the basic information. You should be able to read the passage carefully and answer 70% of the questions without looking back--that’s how easy the questions are! But, again, speed is the real challenge, and a seemingly unfair one at that. Don’t underestimate how quick you need to be to complete the problems.

4. SAT Math focuses on scenarios. ACT Math features standard math problems.

The SAT Math dresses up normal mathematical concepts that you would see in algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus with situations that must be resolved. Test-takers must spend more time translating the situations into problems. This type of presentation can be an issue if you are used to simply working on abstract problems.

The ACT Math, on the other hand, is what you would expect from a standardized math test. Problems are not hidden in layers of narrative or extraneous information meant to trick the test-taker. You just solve and score.

5. SAT Essay is a 50-minute analytical essay. ACT Essay is a 40-minute persuasive essay.

Although both of these essays are optional, the similarities stop there. The SAT Essay requires you to read an opinion piece from a major periodical or magazine and then describe the author's argument and how the author uses rhetorical strategies to persuade the audience. If you are familiar with AP English tests, then you will see a similarity here. Overall, this essay is best suited for a student with an understanding of rhetoric and concepts such as pathos, logos, and ethos.

The ACT Essay is a more routine persuasive essay. You are provided a contemporary issue and three perspectives regarding the issue. With all of these, you are supposed to write a persuasive essay that argues a point of view related to the topic and also address how the perspectives relate to your thesis. If you feel confident in your ability to convince someone about your point of view, and can make compelling examples as support, then this essay will be best.

So how do you choose?

Even with these differences, at the end of the day, the SAT and the ACT share many similarities. Both include only four questions. Both have no penalties for wrong answers. Both rely on graphics for their questions. The ACT English and SAT Writing sections are practically identical. What it comes down to is your personal preference, which you won’t know until you’ve taken both tests.

How do you do that? Come to B2A, where you can take free diagnostic tests to see if SAT or ACT is better suited to your abilities. Not only that, we offer classes for both subjects, so once you decide which test to focus on, you can get the help you need in a classroom setting or even through group or 1-1 tutoring. Don’t let the question eat you up. Solve it!


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