For many years, when I have been asked this question, I have steered the majority of my students toward the SAT. For one thing, the SAT is much more popular in New York, where our students live. For another, the SAT is more coachable; our students have consistently made larger score increases on the SAT than the ACT (on a percentile basis).
However, this blog isn’t just for East Coasters; furthermore, the gap in coachability for the two exams has narrowed.
Today, almost all colleges will accept either exam (although some are exam-optional – see my Nov 29th article), so the simple answer is: take the test you’ll score better on.
The scoring scales for the two exams are very different. Here is a comparison of ACT and SAT scores.
Obviously, you’d rather not spend a lot of time preparing for both exams before you make you decision. Here is some information to help you choose:
The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not. Also, the ACT science section might better be called “Data Interpretation.” It tests your ability to understand charts, graphs, and pictograms. It does not require you to memorize a lot of facts about science.
The questions on the ACT are more straightforward. This test was designed to measure what you’ve learned in school, while the SAT was designed to measure intelligence (although the test writers no longer claim that the SAT is an intelligence test). One theory says overachievers do better on the ACT, while underachievers should go for the SAT.
The writing section on the ACT is optional, while you must do the writing if you take the SAT. However, some schools do require the writing if you submit the ACT (you can check a college’s policy here). Some schools do not consider the SAT writing scores (see my Nov 15th article).
On the ACT, you must answer more questions in less time (215 questions in 2 hrs 45 min + 30 min optional essay vs. SAT 140 questions in 3 hrs 45 min). If you have trouble with time pressure, favor the SAT. If you struggle with mental stamina, favor the ACT.
There are some other differences. The ACT tests elementary trigonometry, while the SAT doesn’t. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, as there is on the SAT. And all score reporting is optional on the ACT, while some colleges require that you send all your SAT scores (see my Sept 29th and Sept 13th articles).
If the differences just described have helped you make up your mind already, fine. Otherwise take a practice test for each exam (optimally before you’re prepped for either one), and then decide. If you know a good test prep teacher, you can also ask her for advice.
Remember, each student is unique, so there are no easy answers. Don’t choose an exam because a friend did well on it, unless you truly feel you are very similar to him. If you like, contact me with some information about yourself, and I’ll try to help you make the right choice.