SAT or ACT: Which One Should I Take?

The SAT and the ACT both essentially serve the same purpose: to give colleges a means of comparing students from vastly different schools, regions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This is very important when trying to decide between, say, a poor student at a small, rural Midwestern school, and a wealthy student at a large, New England boarding school. They may both have a 3.8 GPA and plenty of extracurriculars, but it is difficult to tell which is more “qualified” for the intense academic experience of college, so dissimilar are the circumstances in which they succeeded. In situations like these the colleges will turn to the standardized test, which, by virtue of being standardized, acts as an equalizer of the two very different students. If the rural student scores much lower than the boarder, then admissions officers are likely to assume that the rural school is not a very intense one and perhaps the student will be unprepared for their college. On the other hand, if the rural student scores much higher than the private school student, then the college will assume that he is the real deal and that perhaps the New Englander is a hard worker but not as bright as they thought. This may sound unfair, and it is an imperfect system, but it’s what the colleges have to work with.

Some people may be under the impression that colleges on the East and West coasts require the SAT, while those in the middle of the country require the ACT. Although that situation may have prevailed for decades, it is not true today. Most colleges now require either the SAT or the ACT, with no preference given to either. (In a curious loophole, many selective colleges that require both the SAT I and also two or three SAT II subject tests will allow an applicant to submit the ACT in place of all four of the SAT I and SAT II tests. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it’s a situation you should consider taking advantage of.) The choice, therefore, is yours, and you should be sure to submit your best test score possible, whether it be from the SAT or ACT.

So which one should you take, the SAT or the ACT? Before we attempt to answer that question, it is important to understand some of the differences between the two tests. (For a detailed and enlightening history of standardized testing in America, see Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, from which the following details were taken.) The SAT began in New England as an aptitude test for identifying high-caliber minds in order to give them college scholarships; the ACT, created in response to the SAT, began in Iowa as an achievement test for the “guidance and placement of the many” average, primarily public school students. We can, then, glibly say that the one has elitist origins, while the other’s roots are democratic. This generalization is not necessarily true today, for the present tests are very different than they once were.

What are the two tests like now? As you may have heard, the ETS (Educational Testing Service, the organization that administers the SAT) has recently overhauled the SAT, getting rid of analogy questions and Quantitative Comparisons and adding several higher math concepts and an entire writing section complete with a timed essay so that the new perfect score is not 1600 but 2400. These changes have brought the SAT and ACT closer together, as the ACT has had a writing section for a long time. The SAT currently consists of Critical Reading, Math, and Writing sections, while the ACT includes English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional timed essay. The Science section is the major difference in substance between the two tests. In it, you are presented with experimental results in the form of tables, charts, and graphs, and are asked to answer questions about the data and about hypothetical situations such as, “In Experiment 1, if the scientist had added nitric acid with a concentration of 50 ppm to a sample of marble with a surface area of 24 sq. cm, approximately how much marble would have been lost after 24 hours?” Finally, while your SAT score is broken up into three scores of 800, the ACT gives you a score out of 36 for each of the four sections, with your composite score simply being the average of the four and rounded to the nearest whole number. The way that these scores are computed is different; the SAT takes ¼ point off of your raw score for each question you attempt but get wrong, whereas the ACT only credits you with questions you get right. That is, there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT but there is on the SAT. (So when you take the ACT never leave a question unanswered!)

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2 Responses to “SAT or ACT: Which One Should I Take?”

  1. […] better, the SAT or the ACT? James Maroney presents SAT or ACT: Which One Should I Take? posted at […]

  2. icollegecounselor says:

    The biggest difference between these two long-established, and widely-used standardized tests is where they are “most popular.” Simply for historical reasons, the SAT has been used more extensively along the East and West Coasts, while the ACT has been the preferred “test of choice” in the Midwest and the South.

    Substantively, there are minor differences: the ACT includes a “science” section. It is not hard-core chemistry or biology, but more like a reading comprehension test. Conversely, the SAT has a required writing section while the ACT’s writing piece is optional.

    Here is the big difference: tradition and expectation. Colleges typically expect a student living in the Northeast (or on the West Coast) to be taking the SAT. And when they don’t, it can raise a red flag. It might not, but it could. And the last thing an applicant wants to do is give the admission office a reason to doubt, question, or reject her. So, stick with what is the norm from your high school.

    One final thought – if you’re from an area where both are widely used, take a practice test in both early in the process. Unless the ACT is significantly higher, stick with the SAT. Our tutoring experts tell us it is much more difficult to improve your ACT scores.

    For more questions and tips please visit

    Best regards,
    Steve Cohen

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