SAT vs. ACT – Which Should You Take?

I met with a new student last week, a junior, and asked the same question I always do: “What is the most pressing thing on your mind, right now, related to college?” And like nearly every other junior I meet, the student told me her biggest worry was TESTING. She knew she needed to sign up for the SAT or the ACT soon, but was finding herself stalled in the face of deciding which test to take.

I meet so many students who are confused about this decision, even delaying their testing because they aren’t sure what to do. Should they take an official test for both? Do tutoring for both? And how to pick a test if you don’t know which colleges you’re applying to?

After hearing these questions from so many worried families, I created this simple guide to deciding between the SAT and ACT.

First off – Be assured that all colleges accept both the SAT or the ACT, and neither is favored over the other. You can confidently take either before you’ve figured out where you are applying. It’s most important to take the test you’ll perform better on (I’ll give advice on that in a bit).

Secondly – There is no need to take both an official SAT and ACT, and it certainly isn’t necessary to study for both! There are more efficient ways to compare the tests, which I’ll describe below.

My recommendation is to invest a bit of time into figuring out your stronger test, then focus on that test 100%.

Here is a simple 3 step process for deciding which test to take:

Step 1: Familiarize yourself with the basic differences

Although the SAT and ACT are more similar now than they ever have been, there are a few major differences worth noting. Here is a handout comparing SAT and ACT, reviewing the most important differences. I also like this more detailed article on Prep Scholar. Some students are able to identify their stronger test by simply examining these differences.

Step 2: Take a diagnostic SAT and ACT  

This is the most important step, because you won’t know which test you’ll do better on unless you take them both. While some students opt to take an official SAT and ACT, I personally find it more effective to take the unofficial diagnostic versions. You’ll pay less, get your scores more quickly, and won’t have report scores you aren’t proud of once you apply to colleges.

Here are 3 options for taking diagnostics tests:

  1. Through On My Way Consulting. Students signed up for our Comprehensive Program can take a full-length diagnostic SAT and ACT, completely free, in the comfort of their own home. Following the test, the student will receive a detailed score report, analysis of strengths and weaknesses, and a recommendation for which test to focus on.
  2. With your test prep company or tutor. All good test prep should begin with full length practice tests. If you’ve already picked a tutor or test prep class, ask if they offer diagnostic tests – most do. If you don’t plan to hire a tutor or take a prep class, ask around for local companies which offer the diagnostics with no signup obligation.
  3. Applerouth Online Mock Tests. The online test prep company Applerouth offers timed, proctored diagnostics tests, for only $15. You can take the full-length tests in the comfort of your own home, and have them scored and analyzed by the professionals.

NOTE: If you have taken the 11th grade PSAT at school, you can use this as your diagnostic SAT. Some schools also now offer the PACT, which can take the place of a diagnostic ACT.

Step 3: Pick your test

Start by comparing your scores from the diagnostic tests – the one you score higher one is probably your stronger test. Many students find they also feel more comfortable with one test than the other, as the timing and sections differ. This is well-worth taking into consideration when making your decision!

Additionally, be sure to check the dates that each test is offered. Both take place on various Saturdays throughout the year, and chances are you’ll be able to find dates that work for you. However, I occasionally see students who are unable to make the dates for one of the tests, so it’s worth checking your calendar ahead of time.

Finally, if time is at a premium, and the thought of practice tests makes you want to cry, don’t fret – it’s completely fine to take only one of the tests. Spend a little time learning the differences, and then just pick one. Ultimately, what’s most important is that you spend sufficient time preparing for whichever test you select!

Hesitant to spend money on prepping for the SAT or ACT? Read this post about how your test scores can actually lower your tuition bills!

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