ACT vs. SAT: Which Test to Take and Why?

The following is a guest post written by Brittany Phillips of Varsity Tutors.

Students working in library

High school is full of choices, such as which classes to take, which extracurricular activities to partake in, and which future schools to apply to.

Some of these choices will come naturally, while some choices will require more informed decisions. These choices will only intensify your junior and senior years as you begin to pursue your college applications.

One of the large decisions you will make is which college entrance exam you should complete. While both the ACT and SAT are renown, reputable tests, there are certain reasons you may wish to focus on one over the other. Before you choose which test to take, it’s important that you know the key differences between the two of them and the decisions you should base your choice off of.

1) The reading sections

The new SAT reading section has changed formatting to look more like the ACT; think longer passages and comprehension-based questions, as opposed to short questions that test memorization of words and sentence completion. Both tests now have passages paired with questions that test your general comprehension, word knowledge through context clues, and analytical skills.

One thing that sets the two tests apart is the new SAT’s inclusion of chronologically placed questions, meaning that the questions follow the order of the text. If you are a chronological thinker, this may make the SAT reading section easier for you. Another difference is that the ACT is more about analyzing passages as a whole. If you are a big, conceptual thinker, the ACT questions may feel more natural for you to answer.

2) The writing sections

The focus on both tests now is on grammar and writing style, all presented in context. One difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the new SAT will also include charts and graphs in the writing section. For those who are strong at analyzing text, but not as comfortable with text features, this may be an issue. However, the SAT has nearly half as many questions on the writing section as the ACT, changing the approach you will need to take while studying and testing.

3) The math sections

One big difference that remains between the SAT and the ACT is that the SAT has a portion that does not allow calculators. While the “no calculator” section is comprised only of math you should be able to do in your head, this may still be difficult for those who struggle with mental math. The SAT also has some “grid-in” questions where students must provide their own original answer, rather than selecting from a predetermined set of potential answers. If you find multiple-choice questions confusing, this could be a benefit for you. The ACT math portion continues to cover more subjects, especially geometry and trigonometry, so if these are your strengths, you may be leaning toward this test.

Neither the ACT nor SAT is necessarily easier or harder than the other, although one test may be simpler to prepare for based on your skillset. With different structures and focuses, both the ACT and SAT have sections that can play to your strengths—or to your weaknesses. Although the recent changes in the new SAT, effective March 2016, have made the tests much more similar, you still may find yourself excelling at one more than the other. If you aren’t sure which type of test you are stronger with, try taking a few practice tests, or working with an ACT prep book or SAT prep book, to help you determine where you’re most comfortable. Good luck!

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