You know that old “back in my day…” spiel that every cartoon granddad goes off on? It’s cliché and lame, of course (although maybe accurate enough—my own grandpa comes to mind), so I hate to say it, but here it goes….
In the good old days, there was no choice. You took the SAT if you lived on the coast and the ACT if you lived in the heartland. If you were shooting for a very competitive school, you took the SAT no matter where you were. And that was pretty much it.
But nowadays, it’s all jumbled up. Regardless of who you are or where you are, if you’re applying to college you’re probably going to come to this crossroads at some point: SAT or ACT?
Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing
If you do much research on this, you’re going to find more advice than you can shake a stick at (which I imagine is because your arm would get really tired, eventually). “Take both tests.” “Take practice tests for each, then study for the one you do better on.“ “Take the ACT if you like science.” “Take the SAT if you’re male.” “Take the ACT if you’re not white.” Every test expert has an opinion. Most guidance counselors do, too.
Most of it is bunk. Hogwash. Nonsense. The truth is that most people score really, really closely in percentiles on the tests. You can even convert scores pretty easily. And yes, it’s true that SAT–ACT score conversion isn’t perfect, but it’s much more accurate than a lot of sources would have you believe.
Those who get average SAT scores will almost definitely get relatively average ACT scores. The high scorers will be that in both. I’ve never heard of—and don’t expect to hear of—a reliable case of a student who got a truly disappointing score on one of the tests and their goal score on the other. I’m not trying to say that your scores are some sort of inevitability, no; it’s just that the two tests cover most of the same material and require most of the same skills.
So what about all that advice on which test to choose? Follow some of it if you want—it’s not all completely wrong, exactly—but it’s really not the main thing to think about. In fact, it’s best to not make the choice at all: take both tests. If you happen to be that kid I’ve never met who does get a much better score on one test, I guarantee that’s the score schools will consider more carefully. Admissions offices generally focus on your highest score, and every U.S. college accepts both tests (if they even require one at all).
If it’s not practical to take both for whatever reason (money, testing dates, distance…), then don’t worry about it. Just take the one that is more convenient for you.
The Real Choice – The Best Test to Prep for
If you’re wondering which test is better for you, then you’re probably also thinking about how to prepare. This is a tricky choice, because it can be a really expensive one and there are a whole lotta options.
The most important thing to remember is this: not many tests follow the ACT or SAT format, and you really, really need practice with that before you take the test. Even if you took calc in 9th grade, have a prodigious vocabulary, and copyedit for major publications as a side job, there’s still a chance that these 4-hour tests with their super-specific kinds of questions are going to throw you for a loop. Get that practice now. At the bare minimum, you should take a couple of practice tests. If you need to make a major leap in scores, you might want to put your nose to the grindstone and do some more focused prep.
If you’re only going to take one test, then great. Your choice is made. Obviously study for that one. But what if you’re crunched on resources or even taking both?
Study for the SAT, not the ACT. Like I said, there’s an enormous overlap between them, so this will cover most of your ACT prep anyway. But what’s more important is the SAT prep market has better materials, better instructors, better everything. There are certainly ACT materials and teachers out there, but they’re in less demand, and that means fewer options and fewer fantastic resources.
What’s more, the SAT covers a slightly narrower subject range since it doesn’t include trigonometry or science, so it’s a lot easier to focus on test-taking strategy and endurance. If you’re really worried about the science section of the ACT, then pick up a copy of The Real ACT Prep Guide and do the science sections alone.
Finally, there are more “tricky” questions on the SAT (note that this doesn’t mean it’s more difficult), and encountering those traps more often in your prep helps train you to spot them on both tests.
Signing up for both tests but then preparing for only one of them might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but it’s really not practical to study for both and it’s usually pretty simple to take both, so why not? It’s all about getting the most payoff for your effort—after all, there are definitely other things to think about for your college application.
This post was written by Lucas Verney-Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on taking the SAT, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.