How To Decide Between the ACT and SAT for 2023-24
I’ve written a lot on the decision between ACT and SAT, but this school year will be different. If you haven’t heard, the SAT plans to go 100% digital in March 2024. You can read more about that HERE.
The new SAT format along with the challenges I’ve seen when College Board made major changes in 2005 and 2016 means my advice for this school year is a little different.
Which Test Looks Better?
Colleges don’t care which test a student takes. The ACT and SAT are equally acceptable. One won’t look better or give you a leg up in admissions. (No, the science section of the ACT will not make you a stronger STEM applicant!)
If colleges don’t care, you can focus on the one that works best for you.
This DOES NOT mean you should take both. That is often the advice given by counselors who want to cover their bases in case you don’t follow through on the steps I will outline below. But high school students are busy. If you take the time to gather data and make this decision based on facts, there is no need to take both the ACT and SAT. (Worth reading that again!) My daughter who just graduated from college only took the SAT. She took it a couple times, but she never took the ACT.
How to Decide?
If you don’t need to take both and colleges don’t prefer one test over the other, which one should you take?
I’m going to walk through the questions you need to ask (mostly in the order you should consider, but remember— your priorities should guide your decisions.)
Do you have an ultra-high-scoring test taker who might qualify for National Merit recognition?
If you aren’t sure, go back and check last year’s PSAT. Does your student have a selection index of 200+?
If not, skip this step.
If yes, you are probably locked into planning for the October PSAT because the possibility of National Merit only comes from the PSAT which is only given in the fall. While the PSAT will be the new digital format, I would suggest preparing for and taking the fall SAT because there will be enough overlap in content to make it worth it.
If you are preparing for the PSAT in hopes of earning National Merit recognition, your test prep will take place this fall. You can stop reading and go register for a couple fall SAT dates.
Which test allows you to score higher? And is the difference significant?
If you score about the same on both, skip this step.
If you definitely score higher on the SAT, you have this August, October, November, and December to test and retake. Go ahead and register for the exam dates now and make your test prep plans.
If you don’t know, here are some things to consider:
- Ignore all the testing stereotypes you’ve probably heard. “This test is better for…” or “If you are good at math and science you should…”
- Gather data for a legitimate comparison. You want to compare results from a full-length ACT and full-length SAT. (Do NOT take the actual exam for this step!)
- Do NOT take the test “cold” to get a baseline score!
Both ACT and SAT have been using algorithms to detect possible cheating. One factor is “too much score improvement.” Your baseline score can be used against you if you subsequently improve. For this reason never take an actual SAT or ACT (the kind you register and pay for) to determine your current score.
You can use PSAT and Pre-ACT results if you took those tests at school last year. If you didn’t you can print a practice test from ACT and College Board (SAT). Sit down at your desk or kitchen table and take the test timed, just like the real exam. Grade your results.
Once you have scores from both tests, you are ready to compare. You can use a score conversion chart like this one to evaluate your results. If you are noticeably better on one test than the other, your choice is obvious.
If your results are comparable, one is slightly higher than the other, but only by a bit, you can consider other factors.
Does your schedule during the school year limit your testing opportunities?
I usually start by identifying time consuming activities:
- Extracurriculars (sports season, competitions, shows, etc.)
- Academics (AP exams, end of semester projects / tests)
- Other challenges (spring break travel, scheduled medical procedures, etc.)
Here are the test dates for the 2023 – 2024 school year:
- ACT: Sept 9, Oct 28, Dec 9, Feb 10, April 13, June 8, July 10
- SAT: Aug 26, Oct 7, Nov 4, Dec 2, [I’m not recommending spring SATs]
- PSAT: mid-October (check with your school for its testing date)
I don’t recommend students focus on the June exams because by the end of the school year, even my best students are exhausted. You can plan to retake the exam in June if needed.
Be honest and realistic when you look at your calendar. If you are heavily involved in a fall activity such as marching band, volleyball, or football, will you really have time to study and prepare for a fall test? Similarly, if you are going to spend all spring at qualifying tournaments for debate or competing on the varsity softball / baseball team, is is realistic to plan test prep on top of an already packed schedule?
Your schedule may make the decision for you.
Do you need to work on basic skills before you work on test prep?
Both the ACT and SAT involve reading and analysis, some vocabulary, grammar & usage, and math. The math tested does includes concepts taught in Geometry and Algebra II.
Some students could benefit from another semester of learning in school to make up for academic deficiencies in any of the areas tested. I often find students delaying testing due to issues in math. In general, SAT math is more challenging. (You probably discovered this in step 2 when you compared your SAT and ACT results.) But even if you take the ACT, you will want proficiency with algebra and geometry concepts.
Students taking Algebra II as juniors can still take tests in the fall as long as they are confident with their algebra skills and willing to learn a few things that haven’t yet been covered in school.
When will you be most motivated to prepare?
Scores matter. You read above about both ACT and SAT using previous results (even from a test you though of as practice) in their algorithm to catch cheaters. It doesn’t make sense to go into either exam cold.
When will you be ready to take the exam seriously and prepare?
For some students, college doesn’t seem like a reality just yet. College is still a far off concept that parent and teachers talk about, but there isn’t much urgency. However, most students catch “college fever” by the spring. With campus visits, friends discussing scores, and college applications around the corner, preparing for the SAT / ACT feels important.
Another way to promote motivation in a seemly disinterested student is to study with friends. This is why I offer a discount for groups who sign up for my prep classes. You help me spread the word about the class and I get groups who are likely to help each other stay engaged in the process.
I know all students have more interesting things to do with their time, but understanding the significance of SAT / ACT scores will make your planning and preparation more effective.
There are a number of factors that could influence your decision to take the ACT instead of the SAT. Each student needs to make the decision that is best given their unique academic skills and schedule. As long as you plan ahead, you should have plenty of time to prepare for, take, and even re-take your exam of choice.
For more about ACT versus SAT: https://www.collegeprepresults.com/2022/02/14/act-or-sat-which-test-is-better-2022/