ACT vs SAT: Pros And Cons

Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders

Reality is that neither the SAT nor the ACT is intrinsically a better test than the other.

Which test should you take? The SAT or the ACT?  An already tough question even without the added wrench of the brand new SAT (premiering in March 2016) thrown into the equation. So if you are planning on taking standardized tests in the spring of next year or later, make sure you read on to the bottom of this post for special pros and cons concerning the Redesigned SAT. But if you are deep in the throes of the test prep battle right now and wondering what test you should take this fall or winter, boy, do we at Magoosh have some thoughts for you.

Now, everyone from the College Board to your Spanish teacher to your older brother is going to have an opinion on this one, but the reality is that neither the SAT nor the ACT is intrinsically a better test than the other. However, the majority of students do better on one test over the other, and so that means you need to figure out what’s the better test for you. Hopefully, the tips below will help you sort out which test more naturally aligns with your strengths, but if you haven’t already done so, you should also make sure to take a practice test of both (or compare your PSAT and PLAN scores). Don’t just make an assumption that either the SAT or ACT is the test for you; it would be a real shame to find out later on that your hunch was wrong.

On that note, let’s jump right into the pros and cons:

ACT Pro: Guess Away!

The ACT has never penalized students for wrong answers, which translates into a huge sigh of relief for students who fret over the decision of whether or not to answer or omit a question.

The playing field, however, will be leveled in this area when the new SAT arrives: on the new test, students will no longer lose points for wrong answers.

SAT Pro: Shorter Sections and Fewer Questions

For students whose attention spans are all over the place, the shorter sections of the current SAT can be really appealing. You won’t spend any more than 25 minutes staring at a particular group of questions. Compare this to the ACT, which has longer sections ranging from 35 minutes on the Science and Reading to 60 minutes on Math. The current SAT also has fewer questions overall than the ACT does. And when the new SAT arrives, it will have even fewer questions. Of course the tradeoff is that many of these questions will become a bit more complex, but if test fatigue is an issue for you, this might be a significant consideration.

ACT Con: Running Out of Time

The ACT has more questions to answer in less time than the SAT, and many students struggle to finish, which can be discouraging. This doesn’t necessarily mean the ACT isn’t the right test for you (it might just mean that you have to work on your time management and pacing strategies), but for students who consider themselves to be slower readers or who need more time to process information, this is a serious ding against the ACT.  

SAT Con: The Tricks

Most students find the SAT to be quite the tricky test, laying traps for students around every corner. For wise-guys and girls, however, this can actually add to the appeal of the SAT, making it as exciting as evading a minefield on a video game (well, almost.). The ACT, on the other hand, strikes students as being a lot more like what they see in school. The questions are more straightforward and the explanations for the right answer choice make a lot of sense.

ACT Pro: The Optional Essay

For students who do not feel confident as writers (and aren’t gunning for colleges that require the ACT essay), it can be a nice perk to have the writing be an optional component at the end of the test instead of a required component at the beginning vampiring your energy away. Less confident writers who do need to take the essay can seek solace in the fact that the essay is not factored into the all-important composite score. The SAT essay, on the other hand, makes up 30% of a student’s writing score. (But, again, this is another way in which the SAT will become much more ACT-like starting in March. On the Redesigned SAT, the essay will be optional.)

SAT Pro: Lower-Level Math

The ACT tests students on a few concepts that are typically introduced in an Algebra II/Trigonometry class: including basic trig, matrices, and logarithms. The current SAT sticks to algebra and geometry, although the new SAT will branch out to higher-level concepts, including fundamental trig.

ACT Con: The Science Test

Some students out there loooooove the Science test. But as a tutor, I’ve encountered far more that find it utterly perplexing and way too time-pressured. The Science test, despite its name, is not really so much about science at all, so even students in AP Chemistry can find themselves scratching their heads at questions on data trends and relationships. For many of these students, Science drags down their overall composite test scores, and it is not worth the time and energy for these students to prepare for such as strange test section.

SAT Con: More Complex Reading Passages

This is one thing that won’t change with the Redesigned SAT. Both the current and new SAT include more demanding reading passages: the vocabulary is harder, the syntax more sophisticated, and the ideas more nuanced. It doesn’t help that SAT passages are often dry and boring (Sorry, SAT). The ACT may not be a bucket of giggles, but its reading passages are typically more entertaining and informative.

And now….flash-forward to March 2016:

Redesigned SAT Con: Fear of the Unknown

The Redesigned SAT is pretty radically different than the current SAT, which means we are treading into uncharted territory. In fact, students who take the test in March 2016 won’t get their scores until after the May 2016 administration of the test. This means that this first batch of guinea pigs will be at a disadvantage in terms of making important decisions on retakes. And even though we now have some official practice material from the College Board to work with, it’s going to take some time for students, tutors, and test prep companies to truly crack the code of the new test.

Redesigned SAT Pro: Jumping Ahead of the Curve

We are speculating here, but given the unfamiliarity of the new test, it is possible that students who solidly prep for the new SAT and take one of the first administrations will have a bit of an advantage over those who don’t. In other words, these well-prepped students are the ones who will have set themselves up to affect the curve. Bear in mind that I am not anticipating any major  advantage here. The students who are likely to prep for the current SAT are the same students who are likely to prep full-force for the new SAT. Nevertheless…savvy students are hoping for the best.

Redesigned SAT Con: More Complicated Questions

When we at Magoosh look at the new SAT math questions, we find that, while we used to be able to do pretty much everything in our heads, it would be really difficult to do so the new SAT. There are simply too many parts. And for students who find themselves reaching for their calculator on every problem, there’s an even bigger monster lurking: a calculator-free section. This means that students will not be able to rely as much on traditional test prep strategies such as plugging in numbers to solve a problem (well, at least not without a bunch of calculations), and instead will need to demonstrate true understanding of mathematical concepts and find ways to get around complex calculations. And no one is going to buy your “my monster ate my calculator” excuse.

Redesigned SAT Pro: No Testing of Difficult Vocabulary

Vocabulary flashcards have been a trusted friend of the dutiful SAT student for just about forever. But the new SAT will no longer routinely test students on obscure and challenging vocabulary words. There will still be some testing of vocabulary, but this will all occur within the context of reading passages. So sayonara, sentence completions.

Back to the Question…

Increasingly, more and more students are solving the perplexing dilemma of SAT vs. ACT by not making a decision at all. Instead, they are simply taking both tests. But while there are certainly situations in which taking both test might be the right option for you, for many students, it isn’t. Taking both the SAT and ACT means dividing your energy, not to mention more Saturday mornings in a test prep center. So do everything you can to weigh the pros and cons, take practice tests to compare, maybe do a bit of practice on both, and then dive full-force into the test that is best for you.

The Guide to Preparing for College in High School - free guide

magooshBy Kristin Fracchia from Magoosh Test PrepKristin creates awesomely fun ACT lessons and practice materials for Magoosh students. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

Related Resources:

• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your College Application Essays
• Why Is The SAT Scored From 600 To 2400?
• College Application Tips for Parents

Tips for Answering the University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay Prompts

Want more school-specific common application supplemental essay tips?

“Ideal candidates are inspired to emulate our founder Benjamin Franklin”

This post about the University of Pennsylvania supplement to the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2016 Common Application supplement for Ivy League and other top schools. 

The University of Pennsylvania, or Penn, is among the prestigious Ivy League schools. Established in 1740, Penn is one of the oldest universities in America. It is known for its top-notch research as well as its undergraduate programs that focus on practical applications grounded in a strong liberal arts foundation. It accepts the Common Application and requires an additional Penn writing supplemental. Penn wants to know more about you in order to gain a more holistic view of you as a potential student. It states: “ideal candidates are inspired to emulate our founder Benjamin Franklin by applying their knowledge in ‘service to society.’” Through your Common Application, the admissions committee is aware of your grades and test scores, and understands the level of rigor in your curriculum within the context of your high school environment. Use the supplemental essay as an opportunity to demonstrate how you are an ideal match for Penn and how Penn will help you to accomplish your life goals. Illustrate how you engage with and think about the world around you. Tell them more about what is important to you!

Penn offers a binding early decision option with a November 1st deadline. Consider this option if Penn is your first choice because the rate of admission is higher during early decision. In addition, if you have family alumni ties to Penn early decision may be the best approach. Alumni affiliation receives the most consideration during the early decision program. You are allowed to apply early decision to Penn and early action to other non-binding or non-restrictive early action programs. Always check with the specific schools for guidelines.

Before you sit down to begin writing your essay, do your research to learn as much as possible about Penn’s approach to education. Familiarize yourself with the unique character of the school, go through the website, get a sense of the campus and academic atmosphere, and if possible visit the campus, speak with current students, and imagine yourself as a student at Penn.

Located in the city of Philadelphia, Penn offers an exceptional education in a diverse urban setting on a primarily residential campus. Penn provides many opportunities for students to investigate various areas of interest. The numerous learning hubs are an example of how it fosters an active and dynamic exploration of ideas. Think about how you fit with this approach and the overall academic climate at Penn.

Penn is steeped in tradition. Although the curriculum at Penn is flexible, it is grounded in a high quality liberal arts and science foundation. The four undergraduate schools (College of Arts and Science, Penn Engineering, School of Nursing, and the Wharton school) pride themselves on providing an integrated and functional education. “Penn students combine theoretical and practical thinking while developing the tools they need to innovate and lead in a world that demands an increasingly broad perspective.”

Penn Writing Supplement:

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. (400-650 words)

What are your intellectual and academic interests? Don’t be afraid to show your excitement but ground it in specifics as it relates to the education at Penn. This prompt allows you to discuss how you hope the undergraduate options at Penn can help you explore your interests and how an education at Penn will help you to flourish. Consider why you are a good fit for the undergraduate school of your choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). What specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities might enhance your journey? Include examples of how your experiences make the programs at Penn a good fit for you. How will the opportunities at Penn expand, nurture, and support your interests and aspirations? How do you hope to contribute to the collegiate environment at Penn? Consider how you might positively impact the overall Penn campus community. You need to address why you are driven to attend Penn and how a Penn education will help you to affect change in the world.

Note that additional essays are required if you are applying to one of the Coordinated Dual Degree and Specialized Programs offered at Penn (Huntsman: The Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, LSM: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management, M&T: The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, NHCM: Nursing and Healthcare Management, VIPER:  The Roy and Diana Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, NETS:  The Rajendra and Neera Singh Program in Networked and Social Systems Engineering, and The Seven-Year Bio-Dental Program). These responses have limits that range from 400 to 650 words. Although these individual prompts are not addressed in detail here, keep in mind that each one asks you to share specific examples and experiences that demonstrate your potential for success along with your enthusiasm for and attraction to the particular program. These programs are a significant commitment and you need to convey your genuine dedication. The admissions committee uses your essays to determine whether you will be a good fit for the particular dual degree or specialized program to which you seek admission.

You are up against an extremely competitive group of applicants. Penn received 37,267 undergraduate applications for the class of 2019. Only 3,697, or 9.9%, were offered admission (5,489 applied early decision and 1,316, or 23.9% were admitted). Over 90% of the students admitted were in the top 10% of their high school class with average SAT scores of 720 in critical reading, 735 in math, 735 in writing and an average ACT score of 32. The best way to differentiate yourself from the crowd is by communicating the intangibles through your essays. Use your essay responses to discuss what is meaningful to you and how Penn is the ideal place for you to achieve your dreams for the future.

Try not to be intimidated by this process. Start early to allow yourself enough time to thoroughly research, prepare, and complete all aspects of your application. All these factors must come together in a compelling way to present you as a highly competitive applicant. Penn is interested in your personal stories, life experiences, hopes and aspirations. It seeks to attract and foster great thinkers and future leaders who will play a constructive role in society. Take the time and invest the energy to put your best self forward!

5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your College Application - Download your copy today!

Marie Todd By Accepted’s college admissions specialist. Marie has worked in college admissions for over twenty years. She has both counseled applicants and evaluated applications. Most recently she evaluated 5000+ applications for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts; College of Engineering; School of Kinesiology. She is available to assist you (or your child) with your applications.

Related Resources:

• Tips for Answering Common Application Essay Prompts
• Beyond Tests Scores and GPA: How to Wow College Application Readers
7 Signs an Experience Belongs in Your Application Essay

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Tips For Answering Cornell University Supplemental Essay Prompts

Check out our other school specific common application essay tips!

This post about the Cornell supplement to the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2016 Common Application supplement for Ivy League and other top schools. 

Although the Ivy League schools review the Common Application essay, they also require supplemental essay responses. These help you to convey in greater detail how the specific school and program of study are a good fit for you and how you can contribute to the collegiate environment. The additional essay prompts are geared to help these elite schools glean a better understanding of you as a potential student. To respond well, think about your future goals and how attending Cornell will help you achieve them!

It is important to familiarize yourself with the specific character of the school before sitting down to write your essays. You can begin by visiting the school website. Whenever possible, a campus visit is also helpful to get a feel for the school and gain a sense of how it supports your interests. Cornell’s curriculum focuses on the collaborative nature of liberal arts education and fundamental knowledge. In addition, its practical educational approach is intentionally designed to impact societal and world problems. As you respond to each prompt, think about your personal objectives, the mission of the school, and why Cornell is the best place for you.

Cornell boasts 14 undergraduate colleges and schools with over 80 majors. Through the broad scope of majors and the individual course of study options, it prides itself on being “a place where any person can find instruction in any study.” It fosters creative collaborations with a bottom-up approach. If you are unsure of which major is right for you, the Courses of Study catalog provides degree requirements for each college.

The Common Application Writing Supplement is based on the undergraduate college(s) or school(s) to which you are applying. Each essay response should be a maximum of 500 words. These questions are fairly straightforward and the content is somewhat similar between colleges/schools.

Note, if you are utilizing the Primary/Alternate admission option, you must complete an essay for both colleges/schools that correspond to your primary and alternate selections.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: How have your interests and related experiences influenced the major you have selected in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences?

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning: Why are you excited to pursue your chosen major in AAP? What specifically about AAP and Cornell University will help you fulfill your academic and creative interests and long-term goals?

College of Arts and Sciences: Describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests?

College of Engineering: Tell us about an engineering idea you have, or about your interest in engineering. Describe how your ideas and interests may be realized by—and linked to—specific resources within the College of Engineering. Finally, explain what a Cornell Engineering education will enable you to accomplish.

School of Hotel Administration: The global hospitality industry includes hotel and foodservice management, real estate, finance, entrepreneurship, marketing, and law. Describe what has influenced your decision to make the business of hospitality your academic focus. What personal qualities make you a good fit for SHA?

College of Human Ecology: How have your experiences influenced you to consider the College of Human Ecology and how will your choice of major(s) impact your goals and plans for the future?

School of Industrial and Labor Relations: Tell us about your intellectual interests, how they sprung from your course, service, work or life experiences, and what makes them exciting to you. Describe how ILR is the right school for you to pursue these interests.

These essay prompts ask you to discuss specific examples from your life experience (academic and otherwise) that support your interest in a particular school/college. In addition, they ask you to look toward the future and how your educational experience at Cornell supports your goals. They also want to know how you can enrich the collegiate environment at the school. These questions allow you to focus on what excites you about certain subjects and how studying at Cornell makes sense for you. Consider academics, campus atmosphere, location in Ithaca, and your long-term objectives. This is your opportunity to convey your passion for Cornell!

Cornell has a highly competitive applicant pool. It received 43,037 undergraduate applications for the class of 2018. Only 6,105 were offered admission and 87% of the students admitted were in the top 10% of their high school class with average SAT scores of 690 in critical reading, 730 in math, and an average ACT score of 32. The best way to distinguish yourself from your peers is through your essays.

Applying to an Ivy League school can seem like a daunting process. It is reassuring to keep in mind that these supplemental essays are a chance for you to share your personal stories and real-life experiences. Pay attention to deadlines and word limits as you craft each response to represent your unique perspectives. Start early to allow time for reflection and revision. Your goal is to demonstrate that Cornell is the right school for you and that you are the right student for Cornell!

5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your College Application - Download your copy today!


Marie Todd By , Accepted’s college admissions specialist. Marie has worked in college admissions for over twenty years. She has both counseled applicants and evaluated applications. Most recently she evaluated 5000+ applications for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts; College of Engineering; School of Kinesiology. She is available to assist you (or your child) with your applications.

Related Resources:

Common App Supplemental Essay Tips
What is Passion in Admissions?
• College Application Essays: Writing Tips from the Pros

7 Signs An Experience Belongs In Your Application Essay

You have a lifetime of experiences. Which should you include in your application essays or personal statement? How do you choose?

The more of the seven signposts of significance that an experience has, the more it merits a place in your critical essay.

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