Not long ago, the decision to take the ACT or the SAT was mainly a geographical one: The ACT was long taken by students attending college in the Midwest, and the SAT was more commonly required by Northeastern and coastal schools.
As more institutions began to accept scores from either exam, however, the choice fell on the test taker. How will you decide which exam is the right one to take? Ask yourself the following questions relating to the major differences between the ACT and the SAT.
1. Which test is required by your school(s) of choice?
The most obvious question should be the first one. Most schools currently accept either ACT or SAT scores. If that’s the case, you’ll need to identify other factors when making your choice, but if your prospective institution still requires one or the other, find out for sure before scheduling practice or registering for a test date.
2. How does your brain “tick”?
Think about how you performed in a high school curriculum. Did you tend to be more of a content-focused studier who excelled at test time, or were you the type who liked to apply on-the-spot reasoning to problems? While the ACT and SAT are both designed to predict how well “the average” student will fare in college, the ACT is often associated with the first type of learner, while the SAT leans toward the second.
3. What’s your preferred testing format?
Similar to how you process information, the way in which test questions are presented can also be a factor in choosing between the ACT and the SAT. As previously mentioned, the ACT—with sections for English, math, reading, and science/reasoning—focuses on curriculum and measures knowledge retained. It’s also entirely multiple choice. The SAT, on the other hand, with its bent for practical reasoning, incorporates a writing section that can be a stressor or a relief depending on the type of test-taker you are. Additionally, in terms of scoring there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT; however, points are deducted for incorrect answers on the SAT.
4. How long is your attention span?
It may sound inconsequential at first, but for some test takers, the length of the exam matters. With the ACT clocking in at two hours and 55 minutes, it can be a better fit for more fidgety folks, while the three-hour-and-45-minute SAT is the logical choice for those adept at sitting still for long stretches.
5. What do the numbers say?
For some test takers, the decision of ACT versus SAT comes down to basic research—and a “gut feeling.” Ask your high school guidance counselor about free online practice tests, and try answering real sample questions from each exam to decide which feels more comfortable. If you like statistics, you may consider delving into the numerous studies showing how the two exams vary in their appeal with regard to the test taker’s gender, income, geography, and other factors.