Most NYC high school students will choose to take the SAT, the ACT, or both exams as they apply to college. For years, the ACT was standard for students to take in the Midwest, while students on the East and West Coasts preferred the SAT—some colleges would only accept scores from one test and not the other! Now that US colleges accept both exams, students should think carefully about which test they would like to take. CBS News has a great summary of these exams if students want a quick overview of the key test differences, but more details follow in this post.
According to a Kaplan survey, most students don’t take the time to analyze the two tests and choose the exams that best fits their strengths. A huge misconception is that US colleges prefer the SAT, or that some US colleges only accept the SAT. This is completely false! In fact, the ACT has had more test-takers than the SAT for the past three years. Students should feel free to take either exam, and they shouldn’t just take the test that their friends choose, or the exam that their high school usually offers: by understanding the structure of both tests, students can make the best choice for their situation.
SAT or ACT | Structure of the SAT
The SAT is the longer test, clocking in just under four hours. It covers critical reading, mathematics, and writing, and there is a mandatory essay section. However, in 2016 the essay section will be optional, just like it is on the ACT. The SAT also has a wrong-answer penalty, so students will need to decide if guessing or leaving answers blank will be a better strategy when they’re not sure of the correct answer. Students who do well on the SAT will need to develop their grade-appropriate vocabulary, be able to read lengthy passages closely, and understand when they should guess and risk the wrong-answer penalty.
SAT or ACT | Structure of the ACT
The ACT is shorter, but it still takes three and a half hours to complete (or about three hours without the essay). It covers critical reading, mathematics, English skills, and an additional science section, which gives students passages and tests their problem-solving skills and ability to analyze data from graphs. The ACT essay section is optional, so students who want a shorter test and don’t feel like their writing skills will boost their scores will not have to respond to a prompt, which they would need to do for the SAT. High-scoring ACT students will need to be fast test-takers, because the ACT gives students two-thirds as much time for the reading questions as the SAT does.
SAT or ACT | Preparing for the Exams
It’s important to decide which exam is the best fit, so students should think carefully about how they perform on each of the subjects on the exams and whether they want to write an essay. Without some planning, students could spend hours studying for the ACT without realizing that their writing gift could be more useful on the SAT, or prepare for the SAT even though their quick reading skills would better suit the ACT. For more information about test prep strategies, feel free to check out our SAT or ACT tutoring pages.