Should I take the SAT or ACT?

When it comes to standardized tests for college admissions, most people are still stuck believing that the SAT is the only option. The truth is that most colleges and universities nationwide also accept a different test: the ACT. Before trying to determine which of the two tests you should take, contact the schools you are interested in and determine if the SAT is required for admission. Chances are that either the SAT or ACT will be accepted, but you should always make sure.

What's the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

In short, the main difference is each test's philosophy. The SAT tries to determine your "innate ability," such as how well you can deal with time pressure, tricky questions, and ambiguous phrasing. In other words, it is trying to figure out how good a test taker you are.

The ACT, on the other hand, questions you on material you have learned during high school. It strives to be an all-encompassing final exam that tests how well you can apply all of the knowledge and skills you have accumulated during school.

There are some further differences between the two tests:

Difficulty of questions
The difficulty of the ACT comes from its broader coverage of subject areas and deeper questions that require more specific knowledge, while the SAT is difficult because of the tricky questions and intentionally confusing wording. Studying for the ACT involves reviewing actual subject matter, while SAT improvement comes from studying test-taking skills.

Test Structure
The ACT has four sections: English (mostly grammar), Math (algebra, geometry, and trigonometry), Reading (comprehension), and Science. The SAT has nine sections: three in each of Reading (comprehension and vocabulary), Math (basic geometry and algebra II), and Writing (an essay, and questions on grammar, usage, and word choice).

Essay
The ACT essay is optional and not factored into your composite score (though a few schools require that you take it). It is the final section in the test. The SAT essay is mandatory and is factored into your Writing score. It is the first section in the test.

Wrong Answers
The ACT does not penalize test takers for incorrect answers, while the SAT does by subtracting 1/4 point per wrong answer.

Test Length
The ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long, plus an additional 30 minutes for the optional essay. The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes long.

Sending scores to schools
The ACT allows you to select which scores the schools will see. You may take the test multiple times and send only your highest score. The SAT will require that all test scores be sent to schools, though how each school will deal with multiple scores varies.

Should I take the SAT or ACT?

Quite simply, if your school accepts either the SAT or ACT, you should take whichever test you are most likely to score highest on. The biggest difference between the two tests is the ACT's science section and the SAT's mandatory essay, so your preference for one or the other may influence your choice. The ACT's generous policy of allowing you to send only your highest scores to schools may be desirable as well. A good general policy is that "good test-takers" do at least marginally better on the SAT, while "good students" do better on the ACT.

The only way to know for sure which test to take, though, is to actually take both of them. Contact a large standardized test preparation company to find a local office in your area and see if they administer practice SAT and ACT tests. Many will also visit high schools to administer tests, so consult your school to see if this is an option. You will have the advantage of taking the tests in realistic settings and generally will receive fairly detailed reports afterward. You can also take advantage of some free advice from the teachers there who can better tell you which test to consider after seeing your scores. Unfortunately, you will likely have to provide an address and phone number and will be subject to much high-pressure selling.

Alternatively, you can search the Internet for sample tests or questions and see which test matches best with your testing style. While this method will not be as in-depth or accurate, it will probably be quicker and easier, and will let you avoid sales pitches.

In the end, only you can determine what will work best for you. If you need further guidance, feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment below.

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