Should I Take the ACT or the SAT?

124510421By the time your student is ready to tackle college admissions tests, you will know the type of learner he or she is, what it is they excel in and what their weaknesses are. Do they cringe at the thought of test taking, or are they happy to keep a steady supply of #2 pencils on hand? These are factors that will help determine which test, the SAT or ACT, your child might do best on.

The SAT consists of tests in English and math (through Algebra II), and includes a required essay. It puts more emphasis on vocabulary and punctuation, and sentence structure is important – particularly in the SAT questions themselves, both in English and in math, which are often worded in tricky ways requiring careful reading. 

The ACT on the other hand, tests students in English, reading comprehension, math through trigonometry, and science, as well as offering an optional essay section. The questions on the ACT are commonly described as being more staightforward.

A google search of the question “Should I take the ACT or the SAT?” leads to the conclusion that the SAT is better for students with higher level vocabulary and more developed verbal skills, while the ACT favors students who don’t do well with tricky word problems and have an afinity for higher level math.

In my own experience, this turned out to be true, although my chiildren’s scores on these tests were only slightly better on one than on the other. My eldest, an avid reader who struggled in math, preferred the SAT tests. “One isn’t harder than the other,” he explains, “it’s just that I preferred the game aspect of the SAT’s. You can strategize over timing and whether or not to answer questions for a better score. It’s figuring out how to take the test, not the test itself. The ACT’s are more straightforward.”

My second-born hated to read and excelled at math. He scored higher on the ACT. “The SAT has a sentece structure and vocabulary that’s not very intuitive,” he complained, “I would understand their questions in a completely different way than what they meant.”

It is, in fact, the “strategizing” aspect of the SAT’s that has led to a lucrative industry in SAT tutoring, much more so than with the ACT tests. In an article for the Huffington Post entitled SAT v ACT: Choose WiselyAlex Mallory writes, “The SAT’s style–tricked-up, puzzle-like, and logic-oriented–makes it a more teachable test because there are more test-specific concepts to teach. To varying extents, the tricks can be learned and the puzzles simplified. Once students become familiar with them, the test unwraps itself.” In other words, students taking the SAT will benefit more from learning how to take it first.

Or course many students opt to take both tests and choose their best score to submit to a school. Most colleges will accept either the ACT or the SAT, and you should check each schools’ undergraduate admissions requirements on their websites to see what kind of scores they are looking for. It is also important to note that in many cases you can cherrypick the best scores from separate sections of separate SAT tests when sending out scores through the website. ACT scores may only be sent as one composite score.

If you want to stick with one test, and you’re still confused about which will be best, the Princeton Review offers a free Princeton Review Assesment designed to determined which test best fits your student’s ablilities. Although, if you ask my #2 son, who is studying to become an SAT tutor, he will tell you, “the ACT just wants to know what you know. The SAT cares more about how good you are at taking tests.”

Diane Thomas is one of the newest members of the StudentAdvisor team. She is the mother two college graduates, two college students, and one high school student searching for a college. Diane is an alumna of Boston University’s College of Communications, and also works part-time as a newspaper photographer.

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