This post is an updated version of our popular blog post originally published on Medium on July 17, 2017 by Lloyd Nimetz. The original can be found here.
Since we first posted this blog, the international version of the ACT has switched its format and is now taken on a computer instead of with pen and paper (the US test is still on paper). We have heard from students who have taken the test this way that they have scored significantly lower on the reading section than they had on previous ACT tests and practice tests. There are various factors that could influence this. For one, it is harder for many students to read on a computer screen, and you can’t circle or underline the way you can on paper, which is a popular technique for students. Additionally, there are limited practice tests out there for the computer ACT, so students can’t practice it the same way they can with the paper test. For this reason, we recommend you consider this as an additional important factor when deciding whether to take the ACT or the SAT. Though it’s still a subjective and personal choice for each student, we actually now lean toward recommending the SAT over the ACT for our students, unless they’re confident that the computer format of the test won’t negatively impact their scores.
Below, you’ll see our original post, which details some of the other factors to consider.
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If you’re planning to apply to US Colleges, you’ll need to take a College Entrance Exam, and you have two options to choose between: the ACT or the SAT. This article guides you through everything you need to know to make this decision (summarized in this chart).
First remember two important things:
- Don’t just choose the easier test. Choose the test that will give you the best score compared to other students. Most experts agree that the SAT is easier than the ACT, but that just means there is less of a scoring curve.
- Don’t take both tests. Colleges only require one, and they don’t prefer one over the other. So it can’t hurt to only take one. It can and probably will hurt you if you take both because of the additional prep time required to do so.
In 2016 the SAT was significantly modified to look and feel much more like the ACT so both tests are actually very similar. The material tested is the same. The formatting is practically identical. They both primarily test your knowledge of math, English grammar, and reading comprehension. They both take 3–4 hours to complete.
Keeping all the similarities in mind, there are a number of important differences for you to consider:
- The ACT is more time-intensive. The ACT gives you less time per question so students feel much more rushed on it than on the SAT. If you’re a student who has time troubles on school tests or who struggles to read English quickly, then you should seriously consider the SAT. If not, we strongly recommend you to take the ACT. (Keep reading to learn our reasons.) This is one of the most important differentiators to take into account.
- The new SAT still uses more challenging vocabulary and language (i.e. older passages) than the ACT. The new SAT is much better in this regard than it was in the past, but students, especially international students, sometimes find this to have an impact on their scores. Note that we find that time pressure (ACT > SAT) tends to matter more to your score than the difficulty of the material being questioned (SAT > ACT).
- The ACT has a Science section while the SAT does not. So if you are strong in the sciences then the ACT gives you a slight advantage. Nonetheless take into account a couple things: (1) The SAT does include science-like questions spread out throughout its other sections. (2) The “science” questions on both the SAT and ACT do not test your knowledge of the sciences like the SAT II science subject tests or your science classes would. It tests your ability to read tables and graphs, make assumptions about scientific situations or evaluate scientific hypotheses.
The ACT Math section has three times more geometry questions than the SAT Math section, so if you struggle with Geometry, then that’s a reason to consider the SAT.
- The ACT Math section has all multiple choice questions while the SAT now does not. Thirteen of its questions require that you write in your own answer. Also, the SAT is now split into “with calculator” and “without calculator” sections while the ACT always permits you to use your calculator. The “without calculator” questions only require very simple arithmetic. Our students can quickly do these calculations in their head or on paper, so this shouldn’t be a big concern but worth being aware of.
- The answer choices on the old SAT used to be much trickier than the ACT, giving a large advantage to students who prep more or are naturally good at identifying and avoiding multiple choice standardized test traps. The new SAT is now more like the ACT in this regard, but it still tricks you more than the ACT.
- The essays are different. Both tests come with optional essays whose scores are not included in the final composite scores. The SAT’s composite is out of 1600, and the ACT’s is out of 36. The ACT essay asks you to come up with your own argument and support it, while the SAT essay asks you to evaluate an argument that someone else has already written for you. If you excel at analytical essays, then you’ll prefer the SAT essay. On the other hand if you are good at developing a personal opinion and then generating good examples to back it up, you’ll prefer the ACT essay.
There are also some important context-specific differences between the tests that won’t affect your test score but still should impact your decision when choosing between the two tests:
- The new SAT was released in 2016 so it’s still relatively new. This has a couple of important consequences to keep in mind: (1st) New tests are hard to prep for because there are fewer prep materials, such as books, online courses, practice tests/questions, etc. Also, prep programs (and prep tutors) are not as familiar or experienced with it. As a result, experts will often unknowingly give you old advice or practice exercises that aren’t an efficient use of your time and sometimes misguide you. In addition, a lot of online advice in forums, blog posts, etc. still come up in searches but are now outdated and incorrect, so be cautious of that if you decide to take the SAT. (2nd) It’s also new to colleges so admissions officers still don’t yet know how reliable the scores are. These tests are designed “to estimate the likelihood of a student’s success in postsecondary education”. However, colleges don’t yet have conclusive data on the correlation between the new SAT scores and the students’ success at their colleges. The ACT is something much more proven and reliable to colleges so it’s less risky for you.
- At test centers outside the US, the SAT is now only administered four times a year vs. five times for the ACT. Although this difference doesn’t seem huge, it can have a sizable impact. Test dates sell out quickly in Asia so unless you have priority access to a test center (via your school) or unless you are a very good planner (and have plenty of time before you need to apply to schools), then test center availability is an important factor to consider. You want to minimize the risk of having to take the test at an inconvenient location which sometimes even involves having to fly pretty far, including to the US where it’s offered more frequently. Before this reduction in SAT test dates was implemented last Spring, mainland Chinese students were already flying to Taiwan to take the SAT and ACT tests due to excess demand at China testing centers. So now the capacity constraints will be an even bigger issue. Also, it’s recommended to take the exam at least two or three times, so fewer test dates could make this more difficult for you, especially if you’re in the situation of a lot of international students who don’t start thinking about the US college application process early enough in high school.
- The decision by the College Board to limit the number of SAT test dates abroad was due to alarming levels of fraud that were undermining colleges’ trust in the legitimacy of students’ test scores, particularly in East Asia. If you’re an honest student in Asia, then this gives you a couple more reasons to favor the ACT over the SAT: (Reason 1) Last year the College Board didn’t only dismiss the scores of the dishonest students who cheated, but also all the students who took the test at compromised test centers. Most of these students were honest students who had their scores canceled and were told they had to take it again. Some of them didn’t even have time to retake the exam before their college applications were due. This won’t necessarily happen again in the future, but the SAT is in the middle of an international fraud crisis right now that you should be aware of and which could create more problems down the road for those taking the test, especially in East Asia where the crisis is the biggest. (Reason 2) Nobody will admit it officially, but we think it’s quite clear that the College Board wouldn’t have cancelled one third of their international test dates if colleges weren’t privately demanding it. Clearly college admissions don’t fully trust the SAT, especially for East Asian students where there is a deeply embedded network of test prep companies whose businesses depend on getting test questions in advance. With the reduction in test dates, there will be fewer opportunities for cheaters to reuse the stolen questions, but the fraud is unlikely to stop so long as there is massive financial incentive to these companies to help their students cheat. Therefore, the reputational risk will remain. If you are likely to do well on the test, then this can only hurt you because colleges might discount your high score thinking that there is a possibility that you were cheating.
For many of the reasons listed above, The Spike Lab normally had encouraged our students to take the ACT unless they tend to struggle with time when taking tests. However, with the shift to computer-administered testing for the international ACT, the decision will be a little harder. We also find that what matters a lot more is how much prep time they spend and when they start prepping. Students who start preparing earlier (preferably in the beginning of 10th grade) tend to do much better because there is much less pressure, and they have a lot more time to study and internalize their learnings. So make your decision quickly and focus your time and energy on prep.
After reading this article, if it’s not immediately clear to you which test is right for you, then we recommend that you get your hands on a copy of both tests and spend 45 minutes reviewing them both. You can find the tests here: SAT and ACT. Look at the questions, the formatting, etc. This is almost always sufficient for students to decide which one they prefer. Some students opt to take both tests (~ 4 hours per test) to see how they do on both and compare the scores using a concordance table. However, we’ve found that taking both tests isn’t worth the trouble because a student’s biases tend to impact their scores such that the result they expect is the result they will get. In other words if a student goes into this preferring the SAT, then they’re more likely to do better on it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a student taking the two practice tests if they’re so inclined.
We hope this helps you decide between the ACT and the SAT. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact us for a free consultation.