SAT vs ACT: Which Test Should I Take?

The question I get asked most often is: “How do I know which test to take, the SAT or the ACT?” And it’s an important question! Yes, there are technical differences between the tests; for example, the SAT Reading section is almost twice as long as the ACT’s - but the fundamental difference lies in which particular skills and abilities are demanded (and rewarded) by each test. And in that way, the SAT and ACT are strikingly different! You need to know yourself and which challenges you may be better suited to take on.

Let’s use the reading sections from the two tests as an example:

On the ACT, the student has to read a passage about 100 lines long and answer 10 multiple choice questions, all in 8 minutes and 45 seconds. If she reads the passage in 3 minutes and 45 seconds, that leaves 30 seconds to answer each question. Not easy! So the test is not testing how well you can read, but how well can you read when you’re reading faster than you’d like to! Whether intentionally or not, the test forces the test-taker to come up with a solution to this time-management problem. And there are different solutions - but the most common one - rushing - is not the answer! The trick is to find an approach that will work for each student. If you’re practicing the ACT without a stop watch, you’re not practicing the ACT.

On the other hand, the SAT gives the test-taker plenty of time to take its reading section. Pace is not the major challenge. Instead, you must be able to compare answer choices that are strikingly similar to one another. Nuance is the key. For example, on a recent PSAT, a problem asked which word completed the sentence best, and the two best answers were “vow” and “promise.” Pretty similar, right?! At first, they may seem identical, but upon reflection, there’s a subtle difference between the two: a vow is a solemn promise. You make a wedding vow, or vow revenge, but you do not vow to “walk the dog every day,” for example. So the test-taker must base her decision on the context the word is in: if the sentence or paragraph it’s in is about a solemn subject, or is solemn in tone, “vow” is appropriate. If not, “promise” is the better answer. You don’t need more than thirty seconds to work that one out - but you do have train yourself to notice nuance!

So what are you better at? When I begin working with new students, I present them with all of these differences and help determine which set of challenges they may be better suited for - or even which set of skills they’d prefer to work on.

I’ll write again on the difference between the SAT and ACT Math sections.