Most US universities require students to submit either the SAT or the ACT. Here's how to choose between them.
Both tests aim to assess critical reasoning, reading and math, and the ACT also tests a student’s understanding of scientific experiments. Many, if not all major colleges accept both these tests and do not prefer one over the other.
Both tests are held almost every month, the exact schedules can be found here for the ACT, and here for the SAT. Bear in mind that students from densely populated areas should aim to register well before the deadline, as spots tend to fill up quickly.
Both tests will release their scores online to students for free, but will charge a small fee (around $12) per university a student wants their scores sent to. Both tests also cost about the same, around $90 for international students. Both the test fee and the score sending fee can be waived for students who receive free school lunches.
Students can sign up for the SAT here, and for the ACT here.
The SAT recently got revamped and is now scored out of 1600, whereas the ACT is scored on 36 points. The SAT has 3 main sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math, and the ACT has Reading, Math, English, and Science. Both tests are fairly similar, with all questions being multiple-choice, but there are some key differences that might cause a student to pick one over the other.
In Math, the ACT tends to cover a wider variety of topics, and often requires slightly more mathematical insight. The SAT puts more of an emphasis on algebra, whereas the ACT has a large amount of trigonometry. A last key difference is that the SAT gives students a number of mathematical formulas, whereas the ACT does not.
An example SAT math question could be something like “The recommended daily calcium intake for a 20-year-old is 1,000 milligrams (mg). One cup of milk contains 299 mg of calcium and one cup of juice contains 261 mg of calcium. Which of the following inequalities represents the possible number of cups of milk m and cups of juice j a 20-year-old could drink in a day to meet or exceed the recommended daily calcium intake from these drinks alone?”, with the following answer choices:
A. 299m + 261j ≥ 1,000
B. 299m + 261j > 1,000
C. 299/m + 261/j ≥ 1,000
D. 299/m + 261/j > 1,000
The question asks a student to transform a text problem into a mathematical equation, and as is usual in these types of tests all answers will look relatively correct.
An ACT math question could look like this: “Abandoned mines frequently fill with water. Before an abandoned mine can be reopened, the water must be pumped out. The size of pump required depends on the depth of the mine. If pumping out a mine that is D feet deep requires a pump that pumps a minimum of + 4D – 250 gallons per minute, pumping out a mine that is 150 feet deep would require a pump that pumps a minimum of how many gallons per minute?”, with the following possible answers:
Again, this is a relatively wordy question that asks a student to turn a situation into a mathematical problem. You may have noticed that the questions are fairly similar, and this mostly holds true throughout the tests. Preparing for one test will also prepare you fairly well for another.
Language and Reading
In Language and Reading, the tests are very similar and it is hard to say why certain students find either the SAT or the ACT easier. Both tests require a student to first answer simple sentence construction questions concerning a text.
For example, in the following passage “I grew up with buckets, shovels, and nets waiting by the back door; hip-waders hanging in the closet; tide table charts covering the refrigerator door; and a microscope was sitting on the kitchen table”, students are asked what might be a replacement for the first part, and are given the following options:
A. NO CHANGE
B. waiting, by the back door,
C. waiting by the back door,
D. waiting by the back door
A good feel and understanding of the English language are the most important things a student needs to have in order to be prepared for this section. There are never any technical questions, such as defining a certain literary device or recognising an adverb.
Both tests also ask a student to analyse a literary passage and state what the author meant by a certain sentence. This link gives a good example of the ACT Reading section, and the SAT is nearly identical, although it does ask students to define slightly harder words (the meaning of which can almost always be inferred from the context of the text).
The ACT then has the added Science section, which throws many students off but is not actually about scientific knowledge so much as it is about deducing information from graphs and familiarity with scientific lingo. This section contains a text about some scientific discovery or process, with a few graphs, and asks students to answer questions such as “According to the information provided, which of the following descriptions of [the topic of the paper] would be accepted by both scientists?”. A student with a scientific background might be more in their element when answering these questions, but scientific knowledge is not required to score highly on this section. The advantage of the ACT science section is that it is a way to show scientific know-how without taking an extra SAT subject test.
Both tests also have an essay component that is required by some universities. The SAT’s essay component asks students to analyse a text, similar to what a student would do in an IB Language & Literature Paper 1. The ACT asks students to respond to one of a few prompts. The way this essay is structured is a bit more complicated (and in all honesty, quite vague), and is detailed here.
Choosing between the ACT and SAT
All in all, these two tests are very similar, yet students often find that they prefer one over the other.
One of the best things to do is for students to do a practice SAT and a practice ACT, so they become familiar with the style of questions, and then have them further practice the one they preferred doing.
SAT practice tests are available here
ACT practice test questions are available here
In my opinion, there are more resources out there to help prepare test-takers for the SAT than there are for the ACT, but the ACT is slightly easier to score highly on without a large amount of preparation. One of the resources I cannot recommend enough for the SAT is an app called “Ready 4 SAT”, which has free question sets based on the new SAT, and predicts a score based on your performance on these tests. It is a great way for students to spend a short time daily on preparing for what is ultimately an extremely important test.