SAT and ACT Mythbuster

There are hundreds of different opinions floating around about the SAT and ACT, so it can be tough to actually make smart decisions around taking the tests. Getting a good score on the ACT or SAT can mean getting into a great college. Before making an informed decision about which test to take, most students and families would like a few critical questions answered, including:

• What is the difference between the ACT and SAT? • How do I choose whether to take the ACT or SAT? • Which a study method shall I use for tests? • Do I need to learn different test-taking strategies for the ACT and SAT? • Shall I take the tests more than once? • How do I figure out what an SAT or ACT score means? • When should I take the ACT or SAT? • What is a good score on the ACT or SAT?

There are plenty of assumptions about these questions, and some are more correct than others. We wrote this 'ACT and SAT Mythbuster' to provide answers to some of these questions, and to help students and their families make informed decisions whether to take the ACT or SAT (or both!). Our perspectives are based on preparing hundreds of students to take the ACT and SAT over more than a decade.

SAT, ACT, or Both. Which One Should You Choose?

One of the first decisions to consider is which test is the better fit for a student. The ACT and SAT are similar in many ways, as both have a section on mathematics and English/reading skills. However the SAT has a mandatory writing section, while the ACT has an additional science section, but an optional writing component. From the start, this may make the ACT a better choice for students that tend to struggle with writing unplanned essays in response to prompts. The science section on the ACT is also less about science than it is about using logical skills, reading diagrams or graphs, and drawing conclusions from written paragraphs, so this section can be a good fit for students of all academic backgrounds who have experience with more technical reading.

The tests also differ slightly in terms of how the math section is administered. On the ACT, the math section is entirely multiple choice. On the SAT, there are a few math questions that are open-ended, and these questions require students to go through a problem on scrap paper, and then physically write in the answer on the answer sheet. The SAT may therefore require a little more practice than the ACT, as SAT math questions can be a little intimidating for someone who finds it easier to pick a choice from five answers.

Based on these factors, the ACT can be a better option for students who excel in less quantitative areas, while the SAT can give a bit of an advantage to students who do decently across all subject areas. Regardless of the test taken, all students will need to prepare for math questions, critical reading questions, and grammar questions, as both tests require students to master these key areas.

Some students may want to take both tests, and then retake whichever test feels like the better fit. For other students, one of the tests may immediately seem much more accessible than the other. Since colleges now accept scores from both tests, every student can make a decision about which test is better to take. One of the best ways to choose is for a student to take a full-length practice SAT and ACT test, and then make a decision about which test is the best fit for his or her strengths.

SAT and ACT Test Prep

Studying for a standardized test may seem challenging, but success on the SAT or ACT requires a sustained commitment to preparation for most students. Based on a person's personality and work ethic, there are several different way to get ready for the SAT and ACT. For some teens who balance their academic work and other responsibilities well, self-study with some practice books can be a good match. There are quite a few SAT and ACT practice tests out there, and they can provide a fabulous opportunity to go through practice questions and think about areas of improvement. Group study classes can be another option for teens who want to study in a more social setting, but clearly individual attention dwindles in this kind of situation. Private tutoring can also be a good fit for some students, but it won’t work for everyone ( Responsible, driven students who work diligently during practice sessions and students with only a few minor conceptual issues will usually improve their standardized test scores.

SAT and ACT: Test-taking Strategies

Be aware that a student can use different test-taking strategies for each test. For example, an important difference between the SAT and the ACT is the guessing penalty for the test questions themselves. On the ACT, a student should try to answer every question, even if he or she isn’t sure about the correct answer. This is because writing down an incorrect answer will not have a negative impact on a student’s score, it will just fail to add points to the student’s score. The SAT, however, requires a different method, and it can be better to leave some questions blank than to answer them. This is because the SAT deducts one-quarter of a point for each incorrect choice, but deducts zero points for a blank answer. Generally, if a student can eliminate one of the five answer choices for a particular question, it’ll be statistically better to choose one of the remaining answers than to leave the question blank. If the student can’t eliminate any of the five answer choices, then it will be better to leave the question blank. (

SAT and ACT: Scoring

In addition to the guessing penalty on the SAT, the ACT and the SAT have some additional differences in scoring. The SAT is made up of three different sections—math, reading, and writing—and each of these sections is worth 800 points, for a total score of up to 2400. The score in the writing section is composed of approximately 250 points for the mandatory essay and 550 points for the writing multiple choice section. Clearly, doing well in each area is a student's best bet for obtaining a top score.

The SAT does present a few options that can help lead to a better score. “Superscoring,” which refers to combining scores from multiple SAT tests, can mean walking away with a higher total SAT score. For example, a student could take two different SAT exams. On the first, perhaps he or she achieves a 700 in math, 600 in reading, and 650 in writing, for a total score of 1950. After retaking the test, perhaps that same student gets a 650 in math, 700 in reading, and 700 in writing, for a total score of 2050. The “superscore” takes the highest score from each different section and combines them, so this student would achieve a superscore of 700 in math, 700 in reading, and 700 in writing, for a total of 2100. This is a higher total score than the overall score of either test, so if your child wants to retake the SAT, you can rest assured that only the best scores of each section will become part of the superscore. Each college has its own standards on how to weigh a student’s superscore, so it is tough to tell which schools only consider the superscore and which schools look at the test scores separately. Regardless, showing improvement in any area will help an application.

One more way to control the scores that colleges see is by using the SAT Score Choice option from CollegeBoard. A student can choose to send SAT scores immediately to a selected college, which means that the student won’t know how he or she performed, but colleges do tend to view this option as an expression of serious interest in a school. Alternatively, a student can send SAT scores through the CollegeBoard website after that student sees his or her performance on the SAT: this lets students choose exactly what college will see, but the process can take a bit longer. Essentially, sending scores immediately is a good choice for students who feel that they’ll do quite well on the SAT, while waiting to send scores until a student first gets to see those scores can be a better fit for someone who’s taking the SAT for the first time, or someone who doesn’t feel so great about his or her test performance.

The ACT is a little easier to understand, at least in terms of scoring. There are four sections—English, math, reading, and science—and the optional writing section that can be factored into the English section. A student gets a score for each separate section, and then a composite score which shows the average of these scores. Because the ACT does not deduct points for incorrect answers, a student’s raw score in each section is equal to the number of correct answers. This number gets scaled to some figure in the range of 1-36, and the combined score is the average of each section’s scaled score. This results in scores from anywhere to 1-36 in each section, and a combined ACT score of anywhere from 5-36. The writing section results factor into the English section, so for a student who chooses to take the ACT with writing, the essay will make up about a third of the English score, while the multiple choice component will make up the rest of the English score. Some colleges will also superscore the ACT (, just like they do with the SAT. Even if a student’s top choice does not superscore, it can still be beneficial to retake the ACT in order to improve one section, because colleges will still consider the scores from both tests.

The SAT or ACT. Which is Easier?

Ultimately, most people want to know which is more difficult: the SAT or the ACT. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy question to answer.

In terms of math, the ACT covers slightly more material: it requires knowledge of trigonometry, which the SAT does not. Generally, the ACT is more similar to other standardized math tests that students may have taken in US high schools, because it has straightforward, routine questions, just like the ones students practice every day. The SAT can be a bit more unusual: it may create a math formula, explain it, and then ask students questions about this formula, or throw out tough vocabularly words, or set up open-ended math problems where it’s easy to make careless errors.

The SAT and ACT also differ significantly in requirements for grammar and English skills. The SAT requires students to have a more extensive vocabulary, while the ACT explicitly requires students to have a strong working knowledge of English grammar. The SAT tests writing in a more holistic way: SAT questions do depend on a strong grammar foundation, but the SAT also has vocabulary questions, “Fix this sentence” questions, and many reading comprehension passages. The variety on the SAT works best for students with all-around writing knowledge, while the ACT can be better for students who know the nitty-gritty details of grammar.

Finally, the ACT has an entire section that the SAT lacks: the science section. Now, this isn’t quite what it sounds like. The ACT doesn’t require students to know biology or chemical equations; this section is much more about interpreting graphs and data, as well as analyzing passages written in a more scientific style than the reading section. This doesn’t mean that a student who excels in science will ace the ACT, and it also doesn’t mean that someone who’s bad at science will do poorly: this science section just tests how a student can think about quantitative issues. You can expect several questions that require reading a graph properly and extrapolating from the data it contains, or perhaps reading through something similar to a word problem and coming up with the correct response. If that doesn’t sound like the right fit, then the SAT can be a better match.

When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

For students in junior and senior year of high school, it’s hard to carve out enough time to study for either test. This can lead to students who put off taking their exams, then scramble at the last minute before college applications are due. That’s not a fun way to end high school! To avoid this kind of time pressure, it is important to plan out when a student will take the SAT or ACT. Both tests are offered every month or two (usually every month in the winter, then bimonthly during the rest of the year) so there are plenty of opportunities. It can be a smart idea to try taking the test at some point in junior year: usually the fall, late spring, or in the summer after school, just to get a feel for the test and see the results. The early fall of senior year is a good time to retake your chosen test, or try the ACT if you hated the SAT and vice versa. Students should plan to have taken a test and received a good score by November of senior year, so they can submit all their applications and stop stressing about test prep.

What is a Good Score on the SAT and ACT?

Once a student sees his or her test score, it’s hard to decide whether a retake is worth it. There are some factors to keep in mind that can help students make this decision. If a student completely bombs the SAT or ACT, a retake will definitely pay off! If a student can put in the studying to answer just a few more questions in each section correctly, that will result in a score increase of several hundred points. Maybe the test-taking environment was a little stressful, but the second time around it won’t be as intimidating. Or perhaps a student does well in everything except one section: studying that type of question and retaking the SAT or ACT could result in a huge score boost.

Students should keep in mind how important a score boost actually is to their chosen colleges. A jump from getting an 1800 to a 1900 on the SAT, or a 28-29 on the ACT, will be more impressive to a college than moving from 2290-2390, or 34-35. Since fewer students score so highly on these exams, it’s more important for a student to distance him or herself from the crowd than to concentrate on being the best test-taker ever. More goes into admissions than just test scores, so don’t spend every moment focused on testing. If a student feels pretty good about a test score, it might be the time to build up extracurricular activities or get those grades in tip-top shape.

SAT and ACT: Moving Forward

So, after digesting all of this information, what's the next step? Each student can start the process by taking an SAT test and an ACT test, and then analyzing the scores to see which test is a better fit for his or her talents. Think about the writing section of the ACT or SAT: for a student who hates writing, take the ACT without the optional writing section! For a student who feels like he or she writes well, take the SAT with its mandatory writing section, or do the ACT and choose to take the writing section.

The next step is to decide on a study method, and to start to review material in each area of the test. Math and reading will be important for both the SAT and the ACT, and writing may also be necessary depending on the test of choice. No matter what kind of method chosen—self-study, tutoring, group classes—an important element of the test prep process will be a student's willingness to do as many practice questions as possible. The more practice he or she does, the more familiar the test --whether it be the SAT or ACT -- will actually be on test day.