SAT vs ACT – A Parents Guide

If you want to get into a competitive college, high test scores are an enormous asset (and in some cases, an essential element of your application).

However, many students and parents are faced with a difficult decision: now that colleges weigh the ACT and SAT equally, which one should they take?  Which test presents the best opportunities for high scores, and what’s the difference between the two?

SAT vs ACT – A Parents GuideStudents are almost born to take one test or the other. By the end of this guide, you’ll have all the information you need to make the right decision.

1. What’s the difference between the two exams materially?

Materially, both tests are almost exactly the same.  They both test students on high school math, reading comprehension, and grammatical knowledge.  Both tests have students write a quick-form essay, and both tests rely on a combination of logical reasoning and pure material knowledge to evaluate scores.

The only material differences between the tests:

-The SAT requires more esoteric vocabulary knowledge.  The ACT doesn’t have “pure vocabulary” questions, but the SAT contains many.

-The ACT requires slightly more advanced math skills.  Students must know the basics of trigonometry and some advanced geometry concepts not tested on the SAT.

-The ACT has a “science” section, which really has nothing to do with science at all, but actually tests a student’s ability to interpret graphs and charts under time pressure.

Studying the material and strategies for the ACT applies directly to the SAT, and vice versa.  No matter which test a student trains for, he’ll be improving his scores on the other test as well.

2. What’s the difference between the two exams in terms of difficulty, style, and format?

The biggest difference between these tests has to do with style.  The SAT is a logical reasoning exam – it asks straightforward questions in extremely complicated, intentionally confusing ways.  The ACT is a test of material and timing.  All the questions are very straightforward, but they’re difficult, and asked at an extremely blistering pace.

To sum it up: on the SAT, you need to figure out what you’re being asked in the first place.  If you can figure that out, you’ll do well.  On the ACT, you need to know your stuff, and present your knowledge under enormous time pressure.  But if you’re strong materially, and don’t crack under pressure, you’ll do well.

There are some key formatting differences as well, but none are particularly important when it comes to making the decision of which test to take. 

As far as which test is harder, the answer is this: it depends on the student.  Some of my students hate the ACT but love the SAT, and vice versa.  It all depends on what kind of thinker you are, and what skills and weaknesses you’re bringing to the table.

3. Which test should YOU take?

There’s only one proper way to figure this out:

A) Grab the official guidebooks for both exams, which contain actual, full-length exams and grading rubrics.  They can be found here:

The Official College Board SAT Manual

The Real ACT – 3rd Edition

B) Go through a full test in each book, untimed, to gain familiarity with the exams, their structures, rules, question types, formatting, etc.

C) Set up the time to take a full-length, timed diagnostic in each test, and grade each test using the grading guides in the back of each book.

D) Use the “concordance table” to figure out which score was better:

In 99/100 cases, students perform much better on one test than they do on another.  That’s the test you should stick with.  If performance was roughly equal, go with the test which you liked taking the most.

At the end of the day, you’re always going to do better on one test than the other.  Taking real practice exams and comparing results is the only way to make a smart, informed, and strategic decision.

Be sure to check for much more in-depth analysis of this issue, along with hundreds of additional college and test prep tips to help you maximize your chances of admission.

Thanks for reading my guide, and be in touch if you have any questions or need any additional elaboration.

Anthony-James Green is world-renowned SAT and ACT tutor with over 10,000 hours of experience teaching these tests, crafting curriculum, and training other tutors to teach their own students. He is also the founder of CNN recently named Anthony: “The SAT tutor to the 1%

  1. This is a very informative post pertaining to the SAT and ACT tests. My kids went through testing and some even graduated. One of my kids was a very good test taker, he’s very intelligent, definitely above average. He took both tests and did extremely well, this was before you could retake it and submit the better of the two. Nowadays, maybe that’s even changed. He studied so hard he got into a very difficult school that he dreamed of going to, all of his hard work paid off.

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