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How To Choose Between ACT and SAT, 2021 Edition

How To Choose Between ACT and SAT, 2021 Edition

How To Choose Between ACT and SAT, 2021 Edition 1200 315 Charlene Chiu

This post is an updated version of our popular blog post originally published on July 17, 2017, by Lloyd Nimetz. 

Since our first ACT vs SAT blog, the international version of ACT has switched to a digital format and the SAT has discontinued its optional essay. In this blog post, we will weigh the pros and cons of each test. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are social distancing requirements and both these tests may have more limited availability in different countries. Many colleges have gone test-optional for Fall 2021 admissions, and while several have announced that they’ll stay test-optional for the next 1-2 years, there’s no guarantee that they will make this a permanent change. So if you decide to take these tests to supplement your application profile, we’re here to help you decide which one to take.

Historically, standardized tests have been a major component in the college application process. For many international students, these tests can sometimes also act as a waiver for other English proficiency tests (TOEFL, IELTS, etc.). You have two options: the ACT and SAT. In the following paragraphs, we’ll break down the differences between these two, and how they are suited for different students. First, take a look at the chart for an overview of their differences:

Before we continue, first remember these two things:

  • Take the test that will leave you in the highest percentile, not necessarily the easier one
  • Don’t take both tests, you’ll waste your time

While both tests essentially test for the same thing (your aptitude for college) through the same subjects (math, grammar, and reading comprehension), there are still many differences between them. Below, we’ll list the main differences and what they mean:

  • The ACT is more time-intensive. 

The ACT gives you less time per question compared to the SAT in every section, which means that you will experience significant time pressure throughout the entire duration of the test. If you don’t do well with time pressure or you don’t read very quickly, you’ll want to consider taking the SAT instead. (If you’re looking for the specific time per question you can find them here and here for the ACT and SAT respectively.)

  • The SAT requires a stronger set of vocabulary.

The SAT reading section is notoriously difficult. At times, it uses vocabulary better understood by native speakers and often has older passages with difficult/quasi-archaic language. For US students this may not be as much of a concern. While the difficulty of these passages might turn you away, the time pressure of ACT has a larger impact compared to the difficulty of the reading passages.

  • The ACT has a science section while the SAT does not.

The ACT science section tests you on the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences. While it does not require advanced subject-specific knowledge, it does require scientific thinking and some questions may require introductory-level scientific knowledge. However, this is content that should have been covered in your high school science classes. The SAT does not have a science section, but it does have science-related reading passages. These passages do not require any scientific knowledge, although you will need to read tables and graphs.

  • The SAT is graded on a curve.

When converting your raw score to your final score, CollegeBoard scales your raw score to reflect the difficulty of the test. What this means is that answering the same number of questions correctly on two different test dates will not guarantee the same score. (This also means that if the test you take is particularly easy, each wrong answer will hurt more.) The ACT does not scale your score and directly reflects the number of questions you answer correctly.

  • The ACT math section tests more concepts.

The ACT tests more geometry and trigonometry compared to the SAT (geometry makes up 35-40% of the ACT math section) while the SAT tests more word problems and real-life scenarios.

  • The SAT has two math sections: calculator and non-calculator.

The non-calculator section is multiple choice like the rest of the test and only requires simple math calculations. The calculator section requires the student to grid in the numbers which means that you can’t guess with a 1 in 4 chance of correctness. The SAT also gives you a formula sheet for the math sections. The ACT only has one math section and allows you to use a calculator. The ACT does not give you a formula sheet as remembering formulas is part of the test.

  • The SAT requires good reading comprehension throughout the whole test.

Yes, even in math. One of the difficulties many students have with the SAT is the tricky wording of its questions. The ACT is much more straightforward with its questioning. However, keep in mind that the ACT requires reading passages in 3 (reading, science, English/writing) out of 4 sections so you’ll need to read faster.

  • The ACT offers an optional essay. 

The ACT offers an optional essay that is scored separately from your final composite score. The essay requires you to analyze three arguments and craft your own. This will help show your writing and analytical skills. For international students, the SAT offers an optional essay but only until June 2021, after which CollegeBoard will discontinue it.

  • For international students: the ACT is computer-based.

The ACT is computer-based for all international students. While this means that you can’t circle and underline like you can on the SAT, scrap paper is offered and they provide tools that can remove or mask answers you know to be incorrect. The ACT is still paper-based for US students.

  • For international students: the ACT has a limited number of practice tests

There are a limited number of practice tests for the computer ACT which may leave you feeling under-prepared, although there are many paper versions of the ACT available. The SAT has many practice tests available on the CollegeBoard website and also on Khan Academy (some past tests can also be found on Reddit although the accuracy of those answer keys is debatable), which makes it easier for you to practice and get used to their questions.

We usually recommend our students take the ACT due to many of the reasons mentioned above. Not only does the ACT generally use less culturally biased vocabulary, but the reading is also less intensive (although you will be required to do a fair bit of reading in all sections). Transferable test skills and strategies apply better to the ACT so it’s friendlier for most students who are used to different types of testing. However, if you don’t do well with time pressure, strongly consider taking the SAT instead.

Before you make your final decision, take a look at both tests and attempt a few practice questions or a section each. If you really can’t decide, you can even try out practice tests for both, although that does amount to eight hours of testing. What is important is that you don’t spend too much time choosing which test to do. The bulk of your time should be spent practicing and studying for the actual test. How much and how well you study correlates directly with how well you do. Last but not least, make sure you register for your test dates well in advance.

We hope this helps you decide between the ACT and the SAT. If you have any further questions, feel free to email us at hello@thespikelab.com. If you’re looking for more support on your journey to college, talk to us to learn more about how our programs can support you.