Tutor Tango. Take your teacher with you.
SAT, ACT, or Both?
Monday, September 9, 2013

by WilliamW
Tutor Tango Test Prep Expert and Subject Tutor

One of the most common questions that parents and students ask me during standardized test preparation is whether they should take the SAT or ACT. A good way to find out is by taking them both, but you still need a strategy for how to do this. Many students will already be able to make a judgment on the basis of their PLAN test and practice PSAT taken during their sophomore year. Nonetheless, it is not a bad idea to take both the SAT and ACT at an early test date junior year. If there is a significant difference between the two scores – which you can determine using an SAT/ACT score comparison chart – plan to retake the test on which you received the higher score.

However, many students will not be able to easily detect a clear advantage for themselves on either test in the case of similar scores. Thus, understanding the differences between the SAT and the ACT is also helpful for determining which one is more appropriate. The Princeton Review has a good article about the differences, and here are some highlights:

Time Length: Overall, the SAT is a little longer than the ACT, but the ACT has longer sections with fewer breaks.

Writing: The Essay portion of the SAT is included in the Writing section score, while on the ACT the essay does not factor in to calculating the composite score (the average of all four sections: math, reading, writing and science) and is actually optional.

Math: The SAT Math section is often regarded as the trickier of the two, but the ACT will have a few questions testing slightly more advanced concepts that require basic knowledge of trigonometry. Some students report feeling slightly more rushed on the ACT Math section, trying to finish 40 questions in 60 minutes. There are also no formulas given on the ACT at the beginning of the Math section, but the formulas provided on the SAT are not particularly difficult, and many students will already have most of them memorized.

Scoring: On the SAT, students are penalized ¼ of a point for incorrect answers; there is no penalty for missed problems on the ACT. The SAT combines your scores on each section and totals them for your cumulative score, but the ACT composite score is calculated by taking the average of each section.

Science and Vocabulary: Finally, and perhaps most distinctly, the ACT has a science section that is not included on the SAT. Some students find this section to be strange and hard, so see how it works for you. Conversely, the SAT tests you more on vocabulary. In order to do well on the vocabulary questions, memorization of unfamiliar words is usually necessary.

So, if you are weak on vocabulary and essay writing, but the science section isn’t a stumbling block for you, my advice is to take the ACT.

Even though you might be tempted to maximize your chances of getting the highest score by taking both tests multiple times, a word of caution is in order about this. Be realistic about how much time you can afford to give toward preparation! Most students are juggling commitments to extracurricular activities, and junior-year grades are the most important. It’s better idea to pick one test or the other and practice as much as possible for that particular format. It is important for you to become very familiar with the test beforehand, as well as with the optimal strategy for each section and problem type. Accomplishing this with both tests is simply more difficult and time-consuming. And remember, taking the test multiple doesn’t guarantee improvement, but consistent practice and learning from your mistakes leading up to the test pretty much does – especially with the help of a highly qualified test prep tutor!

In sum, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and while there are exceptions, the scores between the two tests do not tend to vary greatly from student to student. Therefore, if you can, 1) take both early on, 2) factor in your ability on science, vocab and math, 3) pick the test that promises the higher score, 4) stick with it and 5) prepare well!