For high school juniors, the first big decision of the college application process may be:  should I take the SAT or ACT?  Choice can be a good thing but, in this case, it’s better for students to make an informed decision based on which test will best showcase their readiness for college.

Why Focus on Only One Test?

On the surface, the SAT and ACT seem remarkably similar:  both last about three hours, test math, reading comprehension, grammar, data analysis and writing skills.  But the tests are actually not alike.  They test different material and play to different strengths.  In our experience, students who spend time preparing for both tests tend to excel at neither.  The last two years of high school are stressful enough.  We think it’s more effective, and less stressful, to make an early, thoughtful decision based on an understanding of each test.  Students who stick with one test and follow a strategic course of study will be better positioned to maximize their results.

How Do I Choose? 

Most juniors take the PSAT in October.  The test closely resembles the SAT and helps students reliably predict both their baseline SAT scores and how well the test corresponds with their strengths.  To make an informed comparison, students should also take a free ACT practice test simulation with a company like Tungsten Prep, which offers regular free tests with registration available on our website.  (The ACT also offers a free practice test for download here.)

Students who favor the SAT may agree with these statements:

  • I like to take my time answering questions but feel comfortable synthesizing complex material from multiple sources.
  • I’ve taken precalculus and enjoy difficult math questions.
  • I enjoy the “classics” and reading historical documents, especially the opportunity to compare them.
  • I’m a strong writer who can analyze text and structure an effective argument.
  • I’m comfortable evaluating charts and graphs and evaluating data in any context.

Students who favor the ACT may agree with these statements:

  • I feel more comfortable with familiar, straightforward material that tests what I’ve learned in school.
  • I’m good at mental math and love finding patterns in numbers. I quickly identify shortcuts to solving problems.
  • When moving quickly, I find it reassuring to have a calculator on hand.
  • I prefer to read passages that feel contemporary and relevant but aren’t too complicated.
  • I’m a detail-oriented reader and quickly recall facts that I’ve read.
  • I love the nuts-and-bolts of grammar.
  • I’m interested in how scientists design an effective experiment and evaluate data.

For the numbers geeks, the SAT and ACT joined forces last year to produce a “concordance table,” displaying a side-by-side comparison of SAT versus ACT scores.  In other words, if a student scores a 24 on the ACT, then he or she might score from 1160 to 1190 on the SAT.  Both scores mean that students scored higher than roughly 74 percent of test-takers.

Ultimately, a student should choose the test that motivates and interests them (or, at a minimum, feels tolerable) because he or she ultimately needs to commit three to four months to test prep, be it by a book, in a group setting or a one-on-one program like Tungsten Prep offers that can be customized to their individual needs.  Do the research, choose a test and stick to it throughout a structured test prep process.