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 LOVE 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.
By Kristin Fracchia from Magoosh Test Prep. Kristin 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.