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ACT versus SAT: Which is a better choice for you?

Are you an ACT Mad Scientist or an SAT Shakespeare?
Are you an ACT Mad Scientist or an SAT Shakespeare?

Until recently, ACT versus SAT was not a common question. Midwesterners took the ACT and students headed for colleges on the east and west coasts took the SAT. Now nearly all colleges accept either SAT or ACT, whichever the student chooses to submit. With the ACT making inroads as a graduation requirement – as of Spring 2014, it's required in 13 states – students in those states have a strong incentive to take the ACT: It's given for free at their school, and they are being taught specifically for that test in class. It saves students money, time and hassle, for sure.

But even for students who take the ACT through school, there are also good reasons to choose the SAT. In a side by side comparison chart (available for free download here), I've summed it up with schematic question: Do you relate more to the mad scientist or to Shakespeare? Mad scientist because the biggest difference between the exams is in content. The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not. Shakespeare because of the creative thinking and puzzle questions on the SAT.

Here are the pros and cons of the ACT, for the "Mad Scientist":

+ The English section on the ACT has easier grammar.
+ With no Sentence Completions, the ACT has few direct challenges for vocabulary-phobes.
- ACT math is more about "real" math, testing more advanced skills and knowledge of formulas.
- The science section may look straight-forward, but it requires lightning speed; there's no time to read.
+ The essay topics are student-friendly and at least two examples are given for free.
+ There's no error penalty; just be sure to leave no blanks.
+ English, Math, Reading, Science, Essay: It's always in the same order and with only one of each section, the organization of this test is comfortably predictable.
+ The combination of predictable organization, no error penalty and a sense that the topics are more curriculum-relevant may make the test experience less stressful.
+ Since students with extra time accomodations may divide their time up however they like, they enjoy a distinct advantage on this test.
+ Some colleges accept the ACT in lieu of the SAT + 2 SAT Subject Tests, which may save you time, money and effort. It's a great option if you don't have the required SAT Subject Test scores but do have the ACT.

These are the pros and cons of the SAT, for "Shakespeare," the creative thinker:

+ The math is easier, with very few questions requiring more advanced knowledge than that of basic algebra and geometry.
+ There is no science section.
+ The clever student can learn to leverage partial knowledge to turn the error "penalty" into an advantage.
+ The reading passages more easily prepared for, with questions coming in chronological order, enabling students to do focussed partial reading and save time.
+ Speed is less a factor.
+ The SAT favors creative thinkers, students who think outside the box on math puzzles and composition.
+ It rewards advanced readers who have naturally built strong vocabulary and usage skills.
- The essay topic is more obscure, and thus intimidating.
+ With scoring on a scale of 200-800, rather than 0-36 of the ACT, scoring is much more incremental so students can clearly see real score improvement over time.
+ Colleges always cherry-pick the best scores for each of the three test sections, which reduces stress about retaking the exam and almost always rewards students with some scores to keep.


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About the author: Karen Berlin Ishii, a graduate of Brown University, has 25+ years of experience as a teacher and test prep tutor. Karen teaches students in New York and internationally via Skype for the PSAT, SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, IELTS, TOEFL and GRE, and also offers tutoring in reading, writing and math. Learn more about Karen at

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