How To Choose Between the SAT and ACT

The biggest question of your junior year, amirite?

Our Thoughts Before You Kick Off the “Choosing” Process

Both of these tests are highly trainable if you study for them. We do encourage you to make an active choice as to which you’ll take (don’t just take the SAT because that’s what your friends are doing), but don’t overthink it too much. Also, try to resist switching back and forth. In the end, they both test very similar topics. We are confident that all students can do well and improve their scores on either test.

Big Picture

The SAT bills itself as more of a “critical thinking and problem solving test.” The ACT bill itself as more of a “content-based test,” testing your knowledge of certain topics.

What this means in practice is that the SAT requires more strategic thought (“should I answer this question or not because if I get it wrong, I’ll lose points?”) whereas the ACT is more straightforward, testing whether you know a particular math concept or not. However, there are plenty of differences to take into consideration when choosing.

Here’s a helpful infographic that we provide to our students:

Our #1 Tip for Deciding Which Test To Take

Take an ACT and SAT practice test! See how you do.

You can take a practice test for free at most test prep companies or you can self proctor one using a Youtube proctor:

Sample tests are available for free online:

After The Practice Tests, Ask Yourself:

  • Which test covered more unfamiliar material?
  • Which test did I like more?
  • Did I run out of time?
  • Most importantly, which did I do better on? Here’s a helpful conversion chart:
New SAT Composite Score
ACT Composite Score
1600
36
1560-1590
35
1520-1550
34
1490-1510
33
1450-1480
32
1420-1440
31
1390-1410
30
1350-1380
29
1310-1340
28
1280-1300
27
1240-1270
26
1200-1230
25
1160-1190
24
1130-1150
23
1100-1120
22
1060-1090
21
1020-1050
20
980-1010
19
940-970
18
900-930
17
860-890
16
810-850
15
760-800
14
720-750
13
630-710
12
560-620
11

Consider Your Science Skills And Comfort

The ACT has a science section that is a little weird. The problems are very odd to most students when they first encounter them – they’re extremely detailed and can leave students flustered. If you really hate this section and if you’re doing very poorly on it compared to other sections, that might be a good reason to stick with the SAT. On the other hand, the ACT science section is trainable. We recommend this book which has helped a lot of our students: https://www.amazon.com/Love-ACT-Science-innovative-standardized/dp/0996832203

Consider Your Speed

The ACT is incredibly fast paced. Most students run out of time, especially on the math and science sections. The ACT requires a tremendous amount of practice for most students to complete each section in the time allotted. If you are a slower test taker, consider this before taking the ACT.

Do Math Problems Often “Trick You”?

The SAT is a little “trickier” in how they word math problems. If you find yourself making silly errors or often getting tricked on math problems, you might want to try the ACT’s math section, which is a little more straightforward. It does, however, tend to cover a wider array of topics.

Grammar or Vocabulary?

The ACT spends more time testing grammar. The SAT incorporates more vocabulary. Consider your strengths here.

When You Don’t Have An Answer To Choose From

The SAT has “fill in” math problems where you don’t have answers to choose from. You’ll need to arrive at an answer and fill it into a grid. If open ended questions aren’t your forte, consider the ACT instead.

What’s Your Sine? How Do You Feel About Trig?

Both tests cover trig but the ACT math sections often have more trig problems. Be sure to brush up on trig for both tests, but if trig is a real weak spot for you, you might want to stick with the SAT.

What Not To Do

Don’t study for both tests. It spreads your efforts too thin – you’re better off really focusing your study on one test.

Need a Tutor?

Once you’ve chosen which test to take, be sure to make a real study plan for how you’re going to achieve your goal score. If you feel that a tutor would be helpful as you address your “trouble areas,” give us a call. We’re happy to help you no matter where you are. We tutor in person in Brooklyn, NY and by Skype around the world!

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Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen

Rachel is an experienced tutor living in Brooklyn, NY who has worked with dozens of students studying for the ACT, SAT, ISEE, and SSAT. She has a BA from Penn and works full-time as a management consultant. She is also a tutor, blogger, and prolific traveler.
Rachel Cohen