This is one of the most common questions I receive from both students and parents alike, and with good reason. Until just over a decade ago, the standardized testing landscape was dominated by the SAT, and the majority of students, particularly those based outside of the United States, did not consider the alternative. Today, colleges and universities in the US consider results from both the SAT and ACT equally, which leaves students facing two roads leading to the same destination. Nonetheless, I still find that too few international students give adequate consideration to the ACT. While the two tests may be perfect substitutes, this does not mean that the decision to take one or the other should be taken lightly. Though the SAT and the ACT cover almost identical material, each one is geared to a very different type of student. In fact, the differences in the structure and style of the two tests present savvy students with the opportunity to play to their strengths by picking the right test.

These are key distinctions I advise all my students to consider when deciding which test to prepare for. ***Given the New SAT is due to launch in March 2016, the following comparison of test formats is only applicable to the SAT until January 2016. For students in the Class of 2017 and beyond, please look out for my next blog post, which will be all about the New SAT.***

  • The most substantial difference between the SAT and ACT is the way in which the questions on each test are presented. The ACT asks questions in a straightforward fashion and is for all intents and purposes a test of knowledge. Its questions more closely mirror classroom content than the SAT, and for this reason the ACT often feels more intuitive to students. The SAT, meanwhile, is more a test of reasoning ability than knowledge in the strict sense, with questions that are worded like puzzles, in an intentionally confusing manner. These questions often look nothing like what most students, especially those not from the American curriculum, will have encountered in their studies thus far. While the content-based ACT is a far less intimidating option for many students, the SAT is a much more teachable test, with tricks and strategies that students can employ to succeed.
  • The ACT and SAT both require strong time-management skills, but the ACT is especially time-rigorous. The ACT has only four sections, one each for Math, Reading, Grammar, Science and (optional) Writing, while the SAT has three sections each of Math, Critical Reading and Writing. If a student does not do well on a particular section of the SAT, they can rest assured knowing that they will come back to another section of the same subject later on in the test. Since the ACT has no repeated sections, there is no room for error, not to mention that the long periods of time spent on each subject can prove to be mentally exhausting.
  • The ACT covers more advanced math concepts. While both tests require a strong grasp of arithmetic, algebra and geometry, approximately nine out of the 60 problems on the ACT Math section have to do with trigonometry, imaginary numbers, advanced geometric shapes, and logarithms – none of which appear on the SAT. Additionally, formulas are provided on the SAT, while the ACT requires students to learn and memorize them. Those students who are taking advanced math courses will be at a considerable advantage with the ACT.
  • The SAT places a greater emphasis on vocabulary. Each exam contains roughly 19 questions within the Critical Reading section that require the student to fill in the proper vocabulary word from a bank of multiple choice answers to complete sentences. There are often more “vocabulary in context” questions, which ask students to identify words within passages. The ACT, meanwhile, has no sentence completion questions or other vocabulary-dependent questions, which might make it a better choice particularly for those who speak English as a foreign language.
  • The ACT contains a Science section, while the SAT does not. However, the ACT Science section has very little – if anything—to do with classroom science. Rather, this section requires students to interpret scientific data, mainly from graphs and charts. Though the ACT Science section strikes fear in the heart of many students, it actually requires only common sense, and no prior knowledge of chemistry, biology, or physics.
  • The ACT imposes no wrong answer penalty, while the SAT deducts a quarter of a point for every incorrect answer. The ability to guess without negative consequences on the ACT can take a lot of pressure off students, particularly towards the end of a section where they might be running out of time. They might even pick up a few points this way. Students taking the SAT, however, need to be far more strategic in their approach, and omit questions to avoid losing points for wrong answers.

While neither test is harder than the other, taking the standardized testing route that most conforms to a student’s individual cognitive style is obviously the best course of action. Indeed, it is vital to make these decisions early on in the journey, usually by the end of tenth grade in the American curriculum (Year/Standard 11 in the British or Indian curricula). I have seen too many promising candidates switching gears and beginning panicked ACT prep after a worse-than-expected SAT score, a step that can generally be avoided with some advanced planning. You might read the list above and know immediately whether you are better suited for the SAT or ACT. If not, give me a call and we can arrange for you to take a diagnostic test that will help you understand which one is the better fit for you.