Should You Take the ACT or the SAT?
Let's Play "Would You Rather?"
When I was a kid, the party game “Would You Rather?” was really popular. One day in eighth grade one of my classmates at the lunch table had brought in a book full of “Would You Rather” questions and he posed one to our science teacher, who happened to be on lunch duty that day.
“Hey, Mr. Rosen, would you rather have all your fingernails pulled out one by one or listen to John Cougar Mellancamp’s entire collection of music?”
Mr. Rosen opted for the fingernails.
I think most people feel the same way about taking a 4 hour standardized test at 7 AM on a weekend morning on which a great deal of their future rides—they’d take the torture if it were an option.
…and yet, if they want to apply to most colleges, students must take the SAT or ACT.
Here, we’re going to outline a couple of the primary things to consider when picking your poison… er, choosing between these two college admissions tests.
The Obvious First Step: Take Real Practice Tests
Do not sign up for a real test date to get a baseline score. It’s expensive, stressful, and puts off finding out where you stand for weeks. Moreover, a handful of top schools (including Stanford) require you to submit all of your test scores even though they super score, so you wouldn’t want to have to send a score of a test you took on a whim for which you were unprepared.
Moreover, just because your high school advises you to take your first test on a particular date doesn't mean you must or that it benefits you. In fact, taking a test a few months later that you've prepared for is often a much more mentally sound strategic choice than taking a test blind and then judging yourself (and internalizing) the outcome.
The absolute best thing to do is to take a sample SAT and sample ACT and see how they go. Don’t take the diagnostic at the local learning center or at one of the giant prep companies; just use a free real ACT and a free real SAT made by the test makers so you’re sure it reflects the exact material that appears on the real tests.
Take a complete ACT and a complete SAT under timed conditions in a quiet place and respect the timer.
Important analysis tip: If you want to be particularly fancy and analytical, as you take your practice tests, circle any questions that you guess on (guessing is good since there is no longer a penalty for incorrect answers on either test). If you note when you’ve guessed, you
- can see if you actually know the things you think you know and
- see how often you guess correctly and if there is any detectable difference in your guessing on different tests.
Then score each test, not just by counting how many questions you get wrong; make sure you figure out the score equivalency so you can compare percentiles.
If you do vastly better on one test than the other, you probably won’t need to think much further about how you proceed.
Still Unsure? Consider This To Choose The Right Test For You
If you scored more or less the same on the SAT and ACT practice tests, you may want to take a handful of factors into consideration:
- How did you feel about either test? Seriously. Did one feel noticeably easier or more familiar, like the kind of questions you see in school? Did either test have a section that seemed particularly difficult?
- How much did you guess on either test? Did you guess significantly better on one test than on the other? Did those guesses inadvertently affect your score, and if so, would you guess as well if you were taking a different test?
- Did you get things wrong on either test that you thought you were getting correct? Did that happen more often on one test or the other? If so, you may experience one test as more “tricky” than the other, which can require more preparation.
- Were there math topics that are totally unfamiliar to you on either test? If so, that’s actually good news, because you can learn what you don’t know and increase your scores dramatically. See if one test provides you more opportunity to learn by asking about things you don't know about yet.
- Did you struggle with the reading passages on the SAT? That might have been because of advanced vocabulary. Was the Science on the ACT more difficult? That may have been because of pacing or not knowing how to read unusual graphs.
- Did you have trouble finishing any particular section by more than a question or two?
- You’ll want to take into consideration which colleges and universities you’re applying to. Do your top college choices require you to take the optional essay? If so, and if your other scores are more or less the same, is one of the essays on either test more like the sorts of essays you are required to write more frequently in school? Is one of them obviously easier?
Finally, when colleges tell you that they have no preference between the ACT and the SAT, they are telling you the truth. There are still some lingering rumors out there that schools in different regions prefer different tests and it’s categorically untrue. It would be of no benefit to a college to have a secret process in which preferable applicants submit a test that’s not publicly acknowledged as preferred. Choose the test on which you’re most comfortable and on which you see you can learn the most to earn top scores.
Need free sample SAT and ACT practice tests to do a diagnostic? Find them here.