We are often asked about the differences between the ACT and SAT. On the surface, the two tests may seem similar. The ACT’s English section is comparable to the SAT’s Writing section (not to be confused with the essay portion of the SAT). Both the ACT and SAT have a Math section. The ACT’s Reading section seems comparable to the SAT’s Critical Reading section. The ACT has an optional essay, and the SAT has a required essay. So, superficially, the one major difference is that the ACT has a Science section and the SAT does not.
Geographically, some states are “ACT-dominant,” meaning that a considerably greater number of students take the ACT over the SAT, while other states are “SAT-dominant.” The reasons are mostly historical. In general, the states along and closer to the East and West coasts of the U.S. tend to be more SAT-dominant, while those in the middle of the U.S. tend to be more ACT-dominant. Today, just about every undergraduate college or university in the U.S., from your local community college to Harvard, will accept either test and has no preference.
The SAT, which was originally based on an IQ test, includes questions supposedly intended to test “aptitude.” The ACT, on the other hand, is intended to function as a test of knowledge – “an achievement test,” according to the ACT, “measuring what a student has learned in school.”
Based on our experience, we would mostly agree that the English and the Math sections of the ACT function as tests of “achievement”; however, that is not the case with the Reading or Science sections. In fact, in many ways, applying the approaches taught in school on these last two section of the ACT will hurt your performance. Interestingly, a 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the English and Math sections (but not the Reading or Science sections) of the ACT are good predictors of success in college. (If you’re interested, a link to the report is available on our Resources page.)
There are quite a few other smaller differences between the two tests (e.g. the ACT has no penalty for wrong answers/guessing while the SAT does), but instead of continuing to painstakingly enumerate them, let’s address the number one reason most students and parents ask us to compare the two test to begin with: to decide which one to take.
So, should you take the ACT or the SAT? The truth is that you can prepare for and do well on both tests. The SAT tends to be a much “trickier” test throughout, whereas a larger proportion of ACT questions tend to be straightforward. The ACT, in general, really only tends to be tricky on the Reading and Science sections (which isn’t surprising because, as we pointed out previously, those sections don’t emphasize outside knowledge). The SAT Math section tends to ask fewer questions that are common in school than the ACT Math section (whose questions often look a lot like your math homework). The SAT also relies heavily on vocabulary, the kind with which most high school students are unfamiliar.
We not only think the SAT will be tougher for most students, but also that it will be a tougher test for most students to improve their scores on. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take the SAT and do well. We have students every year that work hard and do very well on the SAT. Every test can be prepared for and mastered.
Some people say that if you’re not good at science, you shouldn’t take the ACT because it has a science section, unlike the SAT. But if you read Chapter 8, you know that’s not a good reason not to take the ACT because the Science section requires no real outside knowledge of science.
We’ve heard some people say that you should take both and see which one you perform better on, but we disagree. Most students are not innately good at either of these tests. Even if you take both, how do you know that you didn’t have an “off day” while taking one and an “on day” while taking the other? And even if that’s not the case, if you do better on one and worse on the other, how do you know you won’t improve faster through practice on the one you did worse on?
So which one do we recommend you take? It doesn’t matter! Just pick one. If you’re not sure, just pick the ACT because it is the test where outside knowledge and strategy can be more easily applied. But it really doesn’t matter. The worst mistake you can make is to work on both of them at the same time, because everyone only has a finite amount of time to prepare. Splitting time between the two tests risks your becoming mediocre at both instead of becoming really good at one of them.