SAT vs. ACT – Which Should You Take?

Saving Money, Testing

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 stuck deciding which test to take.

I meet many students who are confused about this decision, even delaying their testing because of it. 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?

For students testing during COVID, the decision is fraught with even more uncertainty. Is registering now even worthwhile when so many test dates are being cancelled? And with an increasing number of colleges being test-optional, is taking the SAT or ACT even necessary? As with many things, COVID has made a confusing decision even more difficult! The question of whether or not to register or prep for the SAT or ACT during COVID is unfortunately too complex and student-specific to address here; we suggest that clients seeking advice on this contact us directly.

If you have decided you will definitely take the SAT or ACT, and just need to figure out which to take – then this blog is for you! After guiding many families through this big decision, I created this simple guide to deciding between the SAT and ACT.

  • First – Rest assured that all colleges accept either 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).
  • Second – 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. If you would like to review the differences, check out this 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 find it more effective to take the unofficial diagnostic versions. You’ll pay less, get your scores more quickly, and won’t have to report the scores when you apply to colleges.

Here are 4 options for taking diagnostics tests:

  1. Through On My Way Consulting. Students signed up for our Comprehensive Program or DIY Program can take a full-length diagnostic SAT and ACT through ArborBridge, 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. Straight from the Source: College Board offers practice SATs through Khan Academy, and also a printable paper test you can score yourself. ACT provides free practice questions, but you’ll need to buy one of their books for a full-length practice test. On YouTube, you can find test timers that simulate the experience of having a proctor, for both SAT and ACT.
  4. Applerouth Online Mock Tests. The online test prep company Applerouth offers timed, proctored diagnostics tests, at a very low cost. 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 or PACT at school, you can use these as your diagnostics.

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, content 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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