Should You Take the ACT Instead of the SAT?

I frequently find myself helping students choose between the SAT and the ACT (or both), and I am often astonished at the sheer quantity of misinformation out there. The most common piece of misinformation is that colleges prefer one test to the other. This is blatantly false. All 4-year U.S. colleges accept and give equal consideration to both tests.

While the SAT vs. ACT topic is far from uncharted territory--just try googling “SAT vs. ACT”--most articles on the topic dwell on structural differences between the tests, such as length of sections, math content, and the ACT Science section. Yet, high school students and their parents tend to have little inherent interest in these structural characteristics. The question that students (and presumably, if you’re reading this article, you) really want answered is “Which test is better for me?”

I have two quick answers to that question:

  1. It probably doesn’t matter. In my experience, 80-90% of students score almost exactly the same on the SAT and ACT
  2. Take both tests and find out! Buy this book and this book. Take the first practice test from each book under timed testing conditions. Convert your ACT scores to their SAT equivalents here. If you scored more than 150 SAT points higher on either test, go with that one.

Still, you may want to find out if you fall in that 10-20% who are likely to score higher on one test over the other without spending 7+ hours on practice tests. Or maybe your practice SAT and ACT scores were similar but not identical, and you’re still unsure which way to go.

Since the SAT reigns as the default test all along the East Coast, let’s start from the assumption that you are planning to take the SAT.** Now, we will investigate three attributes that might make you one of those select students likely to perform better on the ACT.

1) Speed

The most overwhelming difference between the SAT and ACT is the stringency of the time limits. Students have to work at a relatively brisk pace to complete SAT sections within the time limits, but the ACT takes frenetic bubble-filling to another level. Even the most well prepared students have to work at a feverish pace simply to finish the ACT Reading and Science sections within the short time limits.

By 11th grade, you’ve taken more than enough tests in school to know how quickly and effectively you work under pressure. If you are consistently one of the first people to finish tests in your school classes, the ACT may be the test for you. (Finishing a test is not the same as handing it in. Finishing means answering every question, not necessarily handing in the test. Any student who diligently checks his work will always be one of the last to hand in his test.)

If you are consistently one of the last people to finish tests or sometimes struggle to finish them within the time limits, the ACT is definitely not for you. Instead of finishing this article, check the upcoming SAT test dates and go develop an SAT prep plan for yourself. If you will be self-studying, here are three good resources:  Plan 1,  Plan 2,  Plan 3

2) Vocabulary

The SAT evaluates your vocabulary through sentence completion questions. The ACT does not evaluate your vocabulary in any direct way. If your vocabulary is smaller than that of your academic peers, the esoteric vocabulary on the SAT will put you at a disadvantage.

It’s not always easy to compare your vocabulary to your peers’. One way to assess your vocabulary level is to take all the Critical Reading sections of a practice SAT, and compare the percentage of sentence completion questions correct to the percentage of passage-based reading questions correct. If your accuracy percentage is significantly higher on passage-based reading questions than it is on sentence completion questions, your vocabulary is weak in comparison with your reading comprehension skills, and the ACT is more suited to your skill set.

3) Preparation Time

This section only applies to students with starting scores greater than 1650 SAT or 24 ACT. Students below those score thresholds will benefit roughly equally from both ACT and SAT prep, regardless of timeline.

Because the SAT adheres to extremely rigorous standards of consistency, it repeats itself in exploitable ways. The more prep time you are able to commit to learning the SAT’s patterns, the more you can take advantage of those patterns. The ACT, on the other hand, contains fewer exploitable patterns. Be careful: I am not saying that the ACT is easier to figure out or that you should take the ACT because you only have a short time to prepare. My point is that while there is something of a limit to how much you can learn about the nuances of the ACT, no such limit exists for the nuances of the SAT.  Thus, if you are still in the first half of your junior year, make sure that you are significantly better suited to the ACT before choosing it over the SAT (assuming, of course, that you plan to use your time wisely).

TL;DR: Let’s quickly recap the traits of students who should strongly consider the ACT:

  1. MOST IMPORTANT: If you work quickly on tests, consider the ACT. If you don’t work quickly, go with the SAT.
  2. If your vocabulary skills are weaker than your reading comprehension skills, consider the ACT.
  3. If you don’t have a lot of time to prep or don’t plan to spend a lot of time prepping, consider the ACT. Students who can devote a lot of time to test prep should use it to master the intricacies of the SAT.

Remember that it probably doesn’t matter which test you choose. Your score will be determined far more by what you do to prepare for whichever test you choose.


**Note: Let me be clear here: I am not saying that the SAT is the better test for most students. Almost 100% of students come to me planning to take the SAT, simply because it is the default test on the East Coast. It is part of my job to ascertain whether or not any of those students fit into the less than 10% of all students who will perform better on the ACT than the SAT. This article aims to do the same: help students identify if they fit into that small group who will perform better on the ACT than on the SAT.