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Should I Take the SAT or ACT? With Study Tips & Updates on Digital SAT

a student using his phone and books to study

Tests like the ACT and SAT play a crucial role in the college admission process. But if you're a student planning on taking one of the tests, choosing between them can be challenging. 

In this article, we'll cover the key distinctions between the SAT and ACT, so you have the insights you need to make an informed choice. You'll learn how colleges use these tests, each of the tests' structure, scoring, timing, and much more. 

To ensure we shared the most accurate and up-to-date information with you here, we spoke to Independent Education Consultant Janice Walker to get her insight on the topic. Janice is also the Director of College Counseling & Alumni Advising at Cristo Rey Richmond High School. So be sure to look out for her expert advice in this article. 

The Role Tests Play in College Admission

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT help schools level the playing field among applicants. They are a tool to compare and assess your academic readiness, providing colleges with a standardized measure to evaluate students from diverse backgrounds. 

Beyond determining your eligibility, these tests offer valuable insights into your strengths and weaknesses. By examining your test scores, colleges can better understand your abilities in specific areas. For instance, if you're interested in a STEM major, colleges may place more emphasis on the math portion of the test, allowing some leniency in areas like English. 

But it's important to note that these tests are just one piece of your college application. Admissions committees consider various factors when evaluating applicants, including grades, extracurricular activities, test scores, letters of recommendation, and essays. So it's essential to keep that in your mind as you decide. 

SAT vs. ACT: Breaking Down the Tests

The SAT and ACT are widely accepted tests that colleges and universities use as part of the admissions process. While they serve similar purposes, crucial variations set them apart.

Test Structure

The structure of the SAT and ACT differs in terms of sections and content. The SAT consists of Reading, Writing & Language, and Math sections, with an optional Essay section. On the other hand, the ACT includes English, Math, Reading, Science, and an optional Essay section. 

The presence of a Science section in the ACT and the absence of a No-Calculator Math section in the SAT are notable distinctions between the two tests. Some students also feel that the ACT's structure is more predictable than the SAT's.

Math and Science Content

The Math sections of both tests cover essential topics such as Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, and Geometry. However, the ACT encompasses a broader range of math subjects, including matrices, logarithms, and graphs of trigonometric functions. 

Additionally, the ACT incorporates more geometry questions compared to the SAT. While the SAT has no dedicated Science section, the ACT includes a Science section that evaluates critical thinking skills rather than specific scientific knowledge.

Reading and Writing Content

Both tests assess reading comprehension, but the SAT includes five reading passages, whereas the ACT has four. The SAT passage types may vary, including literature, social science, and natural science, while the ACT primarily focuses on prose fiction, social science, and natural science. 

In terms of writing, the SAT requires analysis of the author's argument, while the ACT prompts you to analyze different perspectives on a given topic.

Essay Section

The optional Essay sections in both tests offer an opportunity to showcase your writing skills. The SAT essay evaluates your ability to analyze complex issues, while the ACT essay assesses your ability to evaluate and analyze multiple perspectives. 

Not all colleges require or consider the essay portion, so you should research the specific requirements of your target schools before deciding whether to take the essay.

Scoring and Timing of the Tests

The scoring scales differ between the SAT and ACT. The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600, whereas the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. The SAT also allows slightly more time per question, but the questions often require more logical thinking than those on the ACT.

Here's the scoring information broken down for you:

ACT Score Range

  • English: 1-36
  • Math: 1-36
  • Reading: 1-36
  • Science: 1-36
  • Writing (Optional): 2-12

ACT Composite Score: 1-36 (the average of your four sections) 

If you're curious about ACT scoring and what's considered a good score, click that link for a full explanation. 

SAT Score Range

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 200-800
  • Math: 200-800

SAT Total Score: 400-1600

If you're curious about SAT scoring or what is considered a good SAT score, click that link for one of our most popular resources. 

The Decision to Take the ACT or SAT 

When deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT, it is crucial to consider your strengths, weaknesses, and test-taking preferences. Colleges don't have a preference for the test you take unless explicitly stated. One isn't more difficult than the other- they're just different. 

The decision comes down to which test is better to showcase your strengths. So here are some points to consider when making your decision:

The ACT Might be the Better Choice If:

  • You Enjoy Writing If you possess strong writing skills, opting for the ACT with the essay option might be beneficial.
  • You Lack Confidence in Math: In the ACT, Math contributes only a quarter of your final score and permits calculator usage for every question. Consequently, if you don't excel in the Math section, it won't significantly impact your overall ACT score as it would in the SAT.
  • Science is Your Forte: The ACT provides greater opportunities for science enthusiasts to showcase their analytical prowess. Earning a high score in the Science section is likely to boost your composite ACT score noticeably.
  • You Want to be Tested on What You Learned in High School: The ACT tests on what students should have learned in the classroom from 9th-11th grades in English, Math, Science, and History. This is one reason some industry experts like Janice Walker prefer this test. 

The SAT Might be the Better Choice If:

  • You Are Interested in the National Merit Scholarship Program: While both tests have preliminary testing for students in 8th - 11th grades, only the PSAT qualifies students for the National Merit Scholarship Program, where you can earn unpublished company-sponsored scholarships. If you invest time into studying for the PSAT, you are well-positioned to transition directly into studying for and taking the SAT. 
  • You're Confident in Math: If you feel adept at solving math problems without a calculator, the SAT might be a more suitable choice. Remember that the Math section accounts for half of your SAT score, so performing well in this component can substantially increase your score.
  • Science Isn't Your Strong Suit: The absence of a separate Science section in the SAT means you won't need to worry about a Science score potentially dragging down your overall performance.
  • You Want More Time per Question: Each SAT section offers more time per question than the ACT. If you contemplate things slower and desire additional time as a safety net in case of difficulties, the SAT is preferable.

If you're still unsure, consulting with your school counselor, teachers, or test prep professionals can be helpful to gain further insights and guidance. Ultimately, selecting the test that allows you to showcase your abilities and perform at your best is key.

Taking Both Practice Tests to Help You Decide

An alternative strategy is to take a timed, full-length practice test for both the SAT and ACT to gauge your performance and determine which test aligns better with your strengths and weaknesses. By experiencing both formats, you can assess which fits your strengths and preferences better. From there, you can spend your time concentrating on that particular test. 

What Is a PSAT? & Benefits of Taking the PSAT 

The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is a standardized test designed as a precursor to the SAT. It allows students to familiarize themselves with the format and content of the SAT and assess their readiness for the SAT exam. 

As we mentioned above, taking the PSAT has significant benefits. Taking the PSAT gives you a chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, where you can earn unpublished company-sponsored scholarships. Each year about 7,500 of these merit scholarships are given to the highest students. 

Independent Education Consultant Janice Walker explained that student scores are ranked by state and not nationally, which gives you a better likelihood of qualifying for this program and scholarships. Students only need to score 1370/1520 (90%) to be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program and other scholarships.

"If a student is designated as a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist, they will also receive merit scholarships from the colleges they get accepted to," Janice told us. "Several colleges and universities ask if a student is a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist on their Common Application." For these reasons, we recommend students strongly consider taking the PSAT in their sophomore or junior year.

If you're curious about the scoring on the PSAT or what your score means, click the link. 

Preparing for the Tests

Preparing for the SAT and ACT requires diligent study and practice. Experts suggest studying 10-20 hours per week, depending on how far in advance you start. Ideally, you'll begin a couple of months in advance. 

Expert Tip: Every student taking the PSAT or SAT can upload their scores to Khan Academy, which will generate a study guide to prepare the student for the next test by focusing on their weaknesses (the questions they got wrong or skipped). According to Janice Walker, Independent Education Consultant, this is an excellent collaboration and a huge benefit for students using this resource

Recommended Study Resources

  • Official Study Guides: The College Board, which administers the SAT, and ACT, the organization behind the ACT exam, both offer official study guides. These guides provide comprehensive information about the tests, sample questions, practice tests, and helpful tips.
  • Online Platforms: Websites like Khan Academy offer free, personalized study programs tailored to your strengths and weaknesses. These platforms provide interactive lessons, practice questions, and full-length practice tests.
  • Prep Books: Many reputable publishers offer SAT and ACT prep books with in-depth content reviews, strategies, and practice tests.Mobile Apps: There are numerous mobile apps available for SAT and ACT preparation, such as "SAT Up" and "ACT Online Prep." These apps offer practice questions, flashcards, and study materials that can be accessed conveniently on your smartphone or tablet.
  • Online Forums and Communities: Joining online forums and communities dedicated to SAT and ACT preparation can be helpful. Websites like Reddit and College Confidential have dedicated sections where students share study tips, resources, and answer each other's questions.
  • Tutoring and Test Prep Services: If you prefer personalized guidance, consider hiring a tutor or enrolling in a test prep course. Many companies and individuals offer professional tutoring services both in-person and online.

Once you've prepared and taken the practice test, you'll need to ensure your score is where you want and need it to be. You should look at the average scores for admitted students for the school(s) you're applying to and then ensure your score meets or exceeds that average.  

Upcoming Changes: New Digital SAT & PSAT

Exciting changes are on the horizon for students preparing for the PSAT and SAT, including the upcoming transition to a fully digital format. The transition to a digital format brings several advantages, such as enhanced accessibility, streamlined administration, and quicker score reporting.

Students taking the PSAT in the fall of 2023 and the SAT in the spring of 2024 can expect to see:

  • Vocabulary questions replace reading comprehension questions.  
  • Students will be permitted to use calculators for math questions. 
  • The test will now be section adaptive, which means every student will get the same first question in a section. Then from there, questions adjust to better meet a student's abilities. This will help shorten the test and minimize previous testing frustrations. 

Currently, there isn't a wide selection of test prep material available for this new format. But the College Board released sample SAT and PSAT tests you can and should take to prepare. 

So now, is the ACT changing too? According to the ACT website, their test is staying the same. They have decided to offer students the choice to take the ACT their way, whether online or on paper, so students can choose the testing experience that best suits their unique learning styles and preferences. 

Test-Optional College Admission Policies

In recent years, more and more colleges have adopted test-optional policies, with an estimated 80% of schools being test-optional today. These policies give you the choice of whether or not you want to submit your  SAT or ACT scores as part of your application. 

Many students wonder if not submitting their scores will hurt them when applying to a test-optional school. The answer to this depends on what you bring to the table, as demonstrated by the other parts of your application. Because without test scores, the different factors of your application are weighed more heavily.

If your GPA is high and you've taken challenging coursework, participated in extracurriculars, and even had leadership experience, you could successfully apply without sharing your test scores. 

But suppose your academic record is not as strong as you'd like, and you have yet to have the time or the opportunity to participate in extracurriculars. In that case, studying, doing well, and submitting test scores might be your best bet. 

Need More Information Before Deciding?

Want to find out where you rank for all the schools you are considering? With Appily, you can learn if the schools on your list are reach, match, or safety schools. That insight can help you make the best decisions when planning for college applications. 

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