Parents often ask me whether their student should take the SAT or ACT. Students take the SAT or ACT for some specific reason - to get into the school of their choice, to get a scholarship, or to get into a special program like TIPS. Students should therefore take the test which best helps them accomplish their goals. Most institutions will take either test, but make sure! Student should take the test that they will score best on, relative to other students (score in the highest percentile). The easiest way to find out is to take a timed practice test for each and check the results! However, it may be easier to improve on one versus the other. Here are some general points about the tests which may help you determine which test is the best for your student.
SAT-- 3 Sections: Critical Reading, Math, Writing
ACT-- 4 Sections: Reading, Math, English, Science
The reading sections are designed to test reading comprehension, and are very similar. The SAT however, includes a “vocabulary section” (sentence completion). If a student is good at vocabulary and analyzing sentences, then they may perform better on the SAT. Also, when taking practice tests, pay close attention to time. More students seem to have difficulty finishing the reading section on the ACT within the allotted time than on the SAT. Quick readers with very good reading comprehension may have a relative advantage on the ACT.
The ACT covers more mathematical material than the SAT. For example, the ACT has some trigonometry based questions, while the SAT has none. However, the ACT questions are more straight forward than the SAT questions. On the SAT, students more often need to make some logical deductions at the beginning of a problem before arriving at a relatively simple math problem. Students who do well with “classroom math” may prefer the ACT. Students who are good problem solvers but weaker in more advance math topics, can usually improve their SAT math score more easily than their ACT score (especially with coaching).
Both tests have multiple choice sections covering grammar, and one essay to write.
Multiple Choice (Grammar)
On the SAT, students are given one sentence to fix or to find an error in. On the ACT, students are given a passage that they must read and edit for grammar and style as they go along. Some students find the ACT format more difficult.
The essay is mandatory for the SAT (25 min), and will always be the first section that all students take. The essay is optional on the ACT(30 min), and is the last section that only those who elect to take the essay portion remain for. The SAT questions are usually very broad and students often have difficulty answering the question in a narrow well supported manner. The ACT question will address an issue that is relevant to students lives. There are very effective techniques that students can learn and practice to prepare for both the ACT and SAT essays; however, if a student is not going to do any preparation for the essay, they will probably write a better ACT than SAT essay.
Unlike the Sat, the ACT has a science section. All the information required to answer the questions is presented in the passages, charts, tables and graphs. If a student is good at scientific reasoning, then they may have a relative advantage on the ACT.
Remember this is not an either or question. Students can take both tests multiple times and submit whichever test results are best. Both testing agencies, the College Board (SAT) and (ACT), allow students to control which test results are released to which institutions. A student can therefore only increase their chances each time they take either test.
I hope this helps you in making your decision on which test or tests to take.