If you’ve been wondering whether your student should take the ACT or the SAT, you are not alone. Parents at our McLean, Great Falls, and Charlottesville offices often find themselves unsure which test their students are “supposed to” take. All U.S. colleges and universities accept both the SAT and the ACT, so we recommend that families learn about each test and select the one test that optimizes a student’s chances of getting into college. Below we introduce you to the ACT and highlight both its merits and challenges to help you make the right decision for your student.
While the SAT is the more popular test in Virginia, the ACT is more popular nationwide. Virginia schools choose to introduce sophomore and junior students to the PSAT, so many students feel they logically should proceed to the SAT. Therefore, many students are not aware of the ACT option. Neither test is objectively better; rather, the differing structures of the tests can benefit different types of students. Like the SAT, the ACT tests students’ knowledge of subjects they have been working on in school, namely reading, writing, and math. However, the ACT also includes a science section that tests students’ data analysis and scientific reasoning skills. The ultimate goal of the ACT, like the SAT, is to evaluate your student’s readiness for college. Let’s investigate the unique characteristics of the ACT by section!
Some of our students and parents decide not to take the ACT once they hear it includes a science section. However, students do not need a deep understanding of science content to do well on this section. The ACT Science section tests students’ abilities to interpret data and read graphs, similar to the data analysis skills tested on the SAT. While the SAT’s data analysis is spread over three sections, the ACT concentrates data analysis into one science section. What matters more on the ACT Science section is a student’s comfort level with science language and graphs. We find that students who enjoy doing science labs and can easily process visual information from graphs and tables excel on the ACT Science section. Here is what a typical ACT science question looks like:
The ACT includes a wider variety of math topics than the SAT. While most SAT Math questions test Algebra knowledge, the ACT includes more Geometry and Trigonometry, as well as advanced topics like logarithms and matrices. We often see that students who thrive in advanced math classes in school tend to prefer the ACT Math section. Furthermore, students are allowed to use their calculators during the entire Math section of the ACT while the SAT has a non-calculator section. Therefore, if your student does not feel comfortable doing math without a calculator, the ACT could be the better option.
The ACT labels each reading passage by its type: Humanities, Social Science, Natural Science, and Prose Fiction. Students can choose their preferred order to read the passages, optimizing their chances to maintain focus and answer questions correctly. The SAT Reading section does not label its passages by type and students generally approach passages in the order they appear on the test. The advantage of the ACT is that it does not include the SAT’s paired evidence questions, which increase the student’s chance of getting both questions wrong. Here is an example of a paired evidence question:
However, many students find that the pace of the ACT Reading section much more challenging than that of the SAT Reading Section, which can outweigh the benefit of exclusively unpaired questions.
The ACT, like the SAT, requires students to look for grammatical and rhetorical errors within a reading passage. However, there are some very slight differences between the ACT and the SAT. The ACT focuses on grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure while the SAT emphasizes writing style and vocabulary. Additionally, the SAT includes infographics and charts within the passages, but the ACT does not. Ultimately, the English section is unlikely to help you decide between the ACT and the SAT since both tests are so similar in this aspect.
Just as on the SAT, the ACT essay is optional since it is not required by all colleges and universities. However, the ACT prompt is slightly different from the SAT prompt. The ACT prompt requires students to analyze three perspectives on a real world problem and argue their own viewpoint. On the SAT, students read an article and analyze the rhetoric and fallacies of the argument. We find that students usually score similarly on both essays, so the Writing section should not be a large factor in your decision.
The ACT is a fast-paced test. Overall, it offers 15-20 fewer seconds per question than the SAT does, which means students must learn to move on from difficult questions and not spend too much time reading passages. Therefore, a student who has trouble finishing tests in school may find the ACT too challenging. If a student is struggling with timing on the SAT (a slower-paced test), she rarely does better on the ACT.
Many colleges allow students to “Superscore” their standardized tests, meaning colleges look at the highest section score across multiple test dates to create the best composite score. Many schools that Superscore the SAT also Superscore the ACT, but it is wise to confirm this individually at each college in which your student is interested. Ultimately, understanding how individual admissions offices process applicants’ standardized test scores (including whether the school requires standardized test scores) and how that can affect your student’s chances for admission is an important part of the college application process.
When choosing between the ACT and the SAT, think about the unique challenges of each test and how your student would approach them. The differences you should consider include:
Your student’s natural inclinations at school and personal preferences should be important factors in deciding between the tests. If your child enjoys math and science classes, the ACT could be a good match. Conversely, if your student enjoys English class, the SAT might be the better choice. We find that many students have a strong preference for one test over the other after being exposed to both. The more comfortable a student feels with the test she’s selected, the better she ultimately performs on test day!
So is the ACT a better test for your student? Our investigation into the challenges and advantages of the ACT may have you leaning toward one test over the other. The best information to help choose the ACT over the SAT is results from a full-length practice tests at our McLean, Great Falls, or Charlottesville offices. Your student will experience the timing and structure and the test results can reveal (or confirm) the stronger test for your student. Please reach out to us to schedule a time to take one of our full length practice tests or to discuss ACT prep options at GLC. We would love to help your family through the decision making process!
Senior Associate Director
Georgetown Learning Centers