Updated January 2021
I’m finalizing my ACT and SAT prep schedule for the coming school year and have debated a question that troubles families of juniors each year. ACT or SAT: which test is better?
Of course, I’m looking from the perspective of an instructor. Which test is more coachable? Which test will offer the most benefits to my students with the fewest drawbacks? Which test will allow my students to score more?
There isn’t a simple answer. Before I share my decision, lets look at some facts students and parents should consider when making their own evaluations.
Coke vs. Pepsi
I have often said that choosing between the SAT and ACT is like the choice between Coke and Pepsi.
Both drinks are colas. Both are manufactured by huge corporations intent on marketing their products worldwide. Often the choice comes down to personal preference or availability.
The ACT / SAT choice is no different. Both tests are multiple-choice exams for college admission. Both are produced by large corporations who promote their product to schools and consumers worldwide. Both the ACT and SAT are accepted at all colleges and universities with no preference given to either one.
Like the cola market, there have been some regional biases. I live in Texas, traditionally an SAT state. But don’t let old biases make you think one test is superior. Any college will will accept EITHER test with no preference given to one over the other.
Often choice comes down to personal preference and sometime which test fits into a busy student’s schedule.
From a distance the SAT and ACT appear very similar. Both include passage based reading and grammar questions and math problems. Each test now has an optional written essay that students take at the end of the exam. Students are not penalized for wrong answers on either test.
Both assessments are constructed to make it very challenging to earn top scores. Most test takers will find themselves somewhere in the middle of the pack with fewer students earning very high or very low marks.
The tests are so similar that they are interchangeable in the eyes of college admissions systems. All colleges and universities requiring standardized admissions tests will accept either the ACT or SAT.
Yes, you may see a school publish one set of admissions scores and not the other, but that is based on the data at hand, not an institutional preference. If 75% of students applying to Big U. submit SAT scores, Big U will publish the average SAT scores of its students and may not include ACT results due to a lack of data.
The main point is that colleges and universities don’t care. So students should focus on their preferred exam.
When you are choosing the best exam for something as important as college admission, little differences are important. Here is where the subtle differences between the SAT and ACT become significant.
The top differences my students identify:
1. Format & Structure
With the new SAT introduced in March 2016, there are fewer differences in the structure of the two exams. Both now have longer sections in which all questions of a certain type are tested in a single section.
Here’s the format and order of sections on the new SAT:
65 minutes Reading passages (5 passages, 52 questions)
35 minutes Writing passages (4 passages, 44 questions)
25 minutes NO Calculator math (20 questions)
55 minutes Math (38 questions)
Here’s the format and order of sections on the ACT:
45 minutes English passages (5 passages, 75 questions)
60 minutes Math (60 questions)
35 minutes Reading passages (4 passages, 40 questions)
35 minutes Science passages (7 passages, 40 questions)
Both exams are long and challenging.
One structural difference that stands out to me is the SAT’s passage-heavy first half. Too many students suffer from fatigue after doing 100 minutes of intense passage-based reading on the SAT. The order of the sections on the ACT, in contrast, offers a little relief as students switch from English (writing editing) to math to reading and finally to science.
2. Content Details
While on the surface the reading, writing, and math on these two tests is very similar, there are some content differences.
Writing / English
The new SAT writing looks almost exactly like ACT English. Both require students to edit the grammar and usage in paragraphs. The error types tested are similar, so students need a solid foundation in grammar, usage, and elements of good writing for either test.
The SAT continues to test more college-bound vocabulary than the ACT. Instead of the old sentence completion SAT questions, the new test imbeds vocabulary words in the passages, questions, and answers. Students with exceptional vocabularies may prefer the SAT.
SAT reading seems to test a more analysis while ACT reading has more questions that test whether you can find the specific answer in the passage (a difference of finding versus thinking and processing.) Both tests truly come down to issues of speed for most students because the ability to read challenging material and pay attention to detail is harder when you are racing the clock.
Overall, ACT reading is more straightforward: the answers are there in the passage. SAT reading involves more analysis, vocabulary, and a significant number of questions that ask students to find line number references to support their answers. The only downside to ACT reading is time; some students cannot accurately complete enough problems in the time allowed.
Both exams test basic trig functions (SOH-CAH-TOA) as well as standard algebra and geometry concepts. Both have a distribution of easy, medium, and hard questions.
The SAT tests more advanced Algebra II concepts. Students who have successfully completed Algebra II may prefer that aspect of SAT math. However, the SAT math questions tend to be longer and include irrelevant details. While it is a valuable skill to identify which elements are necessary to solve a particular problem, some students, tired by the fatigue of reading for the first 100 minutes of the exam, may not do as well on this type of math test.
In contrast ACT problems require less reading and rarely include details unnecessary for the solution. One downside to ACT math is that no formulas are provided. Student must memorize equations for things like the circumference and area of a circle. (However, there are an equal number of formulas students need to memorize for the SAT, so this shouldn’t influence your decision.)
The content differences in math may make one exam more appealing than the other. For most students, the content is about the same. (But keep reading because math is clearly NOT equal on these two tests.)
3. No Calculator Math Section (and no multiple choice options)
This is a big enough issue that it deserves its own point.
SAT math is divided into two timed sections. On one section must be done WITHOUT the assistance of a calculator.
Showing my age, I’ll admit that the entire SAT had to be done without the use of a calculator when I was in school (just after the advent of electricity according to my children!) Personally, I’m not at a disadvantage on this new section because I’ve been in the habit of calculating things with paper and pencil for decades. Unfortunately, today’s students don’t have this experience.
Most students are encouraged to use a calculator from the time they enter Algebra I. Basic computation is not something they are comfortable with or good at. Yes, most students can do the math without a calculator, but they take longer and typically approach the section with trepidation.
Additionally, 22% of the SAT math questions require students to produce an answer that can be bubbled into a numerical grid. These questions cannot be solved with test taking strategies like plugging in the answers or picking numbers.
Between the 25-minute no calculator section and the math questions that do not have multiple choice answer, many students will prefer the math on the ACT.
Students receive two scores on the SAT
- Evidenced Based Reading and Writing
While it is pretty common to add scores together, they are still viewed as two separate scores by colleges.
In contrast, students receive a single composite ACT score, which is the average of the scores earned on the four sections of the test. Because colleges see the average, students who struggle in one area have a chance to improve their overall score by earning more points in their stronger subjects.
There are cases in which the scoring methodology can make one test the clear choice.
Consider the student who is exceptional in reading and writing, but average in math.
- Reading & Writing 800 (perfect score)
- Math 500
- English 36 (perfect score)
- Math 21
- Reading 36 (perfect score)
- Science 29 *
*Science on the ACT does not require calculations and in many ways is like reading, but with charts and graphs.
This student’s SAT total (1300) is the equivalent of a 27 on the ACT according to the score concordance table provided by College Board. However, this student earned a score of 31 on the ACT. One low section on the ACT is less detrimental because there are three other sections to help average out the total score.
More Coachable Exam
Part of my perspective is to find the exam that is more coachable. In other words, if you are going to spend any time and money on improving scores, which test favors your efforts?
Currently I find the most coachable section of all tests to be the ACT science section. With a few strategies and some practice, I can help students earn more points. In contrast, it is much harder to coach the type of reading analysis found on the SAT, particularly if a student hasn’t developed this type of thinking after years of high school work.
How to Decide
Ignore the old rumors that say one test is more like school or the other test is better for students applying to highly-selective universities. These rumors are NOT true.
Often the difference comes down to personal preference. Here are some practical considerations to guide your decision:
- Compare scores from previous or practice tests. You can use this concordance table from College Board.
- If you haven’t taken either test, obtain an official full-length practice test at no cost from your counseling office at school or print them from my resource page.
- Does one test offer a better format? Was the content of one test more familiar?
- Consider test prep factors. Does one test / class better meet your schedule? Check for conflicts with school holidays, sports or extracurricular, and family activities.
Obviously you should focus on the test that lets you score higher. Unless your previous scores say otherwise, go with your gut. Take the test that feels most comfortable to you.
So which test is more coachable? Which test will offer the most benefits to my students with the fewest drawbacks? Which test will allow my students to score more?
A majority of my clients prefer the ACT.
The SAT is good for a select group of students:
- ultra-high scoring math students who love the fact that SAT Math is 50% of their overall score
- students who simply cannot finish enough ACT reading and science to meet their score goals. These students are often slow readers or have undiagnosed learning or testing issues (meaning they probably should qualify for extended time if diagnosed.)
The ACT is usually the right choice for everyone else. But don’t take my word for it. Take a practice ACT and a practice SAT (or use your PSAT results) and see for yourself.
What do you think? Leave comments below.