High school juniors are gearing up for their college entrance exams, and this begs the question, which one to take? The SAT and ACT used to be pretty well divided by region. Students in the West and Northeast took the SAT, and students in the South and Midwest took the ACT. Students in Florida have generally been divided between the two. These days it's up for grabs. The vast majority of colleges accept either test, although some of the more competitive schools also require the SAT subject tests in addition to the SAT or ACT. You need to check your college sites carefully to see which tests they prefer.
While the choice is up to the student, there are differences between the two tests that make it worth doing your "homework" before you register. First, if your school offers the "prequel" to these tests (as in the PSAT or the PLAN), then take them. Those can give you an indication of the type of questions that are on each test. If you don't have the opportunity to take those tests at school, there are free practice versions of the SAT and SAT available on Line. Details of each test, including the test directions and explanations of how they're scored, are available on the test prep websites as well.
Try to take your practice exam in test-like conditions. Find a quiet room and time yourself. Speaking of time. The SAT is much longer than the ACT. The SAT takes 3 hours and 45 minutes, versus the ACT which clocks in at 2 hours 50 minutes (tack on another 30 minutes if you're doing the writing section). If you have problems with attention or sitting still for long periods, the ACT may be for you.
While both tests cover material taught in high school, the ACT is more curriculum driven. The ACT also covers more material than the SAT, including a science section. According to the SparkNotes Test Prep website, the ACT focuses on subjects and skills taught in high school, while the SAT is trying to assess "innate ability". In other words, the SAT uses trickier questions and tries to see how you work under pressure. If you are a great analytical thinker, it may be the test for you.
The two tests are also scored differently. The ACT counts only CORRECT answers. If you guess wrong, you don't lose points. The SAT subtracts a fraction of a point for each wrong answer, so if you're going to guess on the SAT, make it a good one!
All of this begs the question, why are these tests so important anyway? In truth, the SAT and ACT are becoming less important as time goes on. It turns out that the high school transcript is a much better predictor of college success than these standardized tests! More colleges each year are going "test optional" and allowing students to apply without supplying their SAT or ACT scores. According to Fair Test, a non-profit organization committed to open and fair testing, 830 four year colleges in the US are now test optional.
Still, the majority of public institutions still require one or the other, so do your research, read a lot, and good luck.