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Should you take the SAT or the ACT ?

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Nearly all colleges require that you take the SAT or ACT to gain admission. Your scores on these exams are part of what determines if a college accepts you. Which test do you choose? It’s important to know that neither test is superior to the other. Your decision of which one to take may be determined by the admission criteria for the school of your choice. If the school has no preference, you can decide which test to take.

Both the SAT and ACT offer practice exams. You may want to take each practice exam to help you determine which test to ultimately take. Below are some facts about the tests to help you make your decision:

The structure of the SAT and ACT tests are similar, but there are a few differences.

The SAT consists of 3 separate tests – math, reading, and writing. There are 140 total questions on the test.

  • The math assessment test consists of a combination of multiple choice and “grid-in” questions. Covered are various math principles – numbers and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, and finally data analysis, statistics, and probability. The test is designed to be standard with that of a tenth grade student. The math portion makes up 1/3 of your overall SAT score.
  • The critical reading assessment consists of sentence completion multiple choice questions along with longer passage type questions. This test requires vocabulary expertise
  • The writing section consists of writing a short essay based on an assigned topic. Your writing scores are factored into your overall SAT score.

The ACT consists of four multiple choice tests, with an optional fifth writing essay. There are 215 total questions on the test.

  • The English portion covers mechanics and rhetoric skills.
  • The mathematics portion covers beginning algebra skills through more advanced trigonometry. The math portion makes up 1/4 of your overall ACT score.
  • The reading portion asks questions related to arts and literature.
  • The science portion covers evaluation and problem solving.
  • The writing section consists of writing a short essay based on an assigned topic. Your writing scores are not included in your composite score.

The SAT and ACT are scored differently. These differences can affect your final scores.

  • The SAT’s three sections are worth between 200 and 800 points each. The total combined score potential is 2400 points. For each correct answer you get on the SAT, you’ll receive one point towards your final score. For each answer you get wrong, you’ll have 1/4 point detracted from your score (except for math grid-in questions). Answers left blank are not counted at all.
  • The ACT’s four sections are graded on a scale of 1 to 36. 36 is the highest possible composite score. The optional essay can add points to your score. No points are deducted for wrong answers. The ACT test also provides sub scores for three of the four tests. These do not relate to the final score, but provide some extra analysis of a student’s strength or weakness.

There are a few other differences between the SAT and ACT. These include:

  • The SAT has a registration fee around $50 and takes about four hours to complete. The test is given 7 times a year.
  • The ACT has a registration fees around $29 and takes about three and a half hours to complete. This includes the optional 30 minute writing test. The test is given 6 times a year.

Whichever test you decide to take, approach it seriously. Your scores will help to determine what college you will ultimately attend.


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Steve Cohen about 8 years ago Steve Cohen


The biggest difference between these two long-established, and widely-used standardized tests is where they are “most popular.” Simply for historical reasons, the SAT has been used more extensively along the East and West Coasts, while the ACT has been the preferred “test of choice” in the Midwest and the South. Substantively, there are minor differences: the ACT includes a “science” section. It is not hard-core chemistry or biology, but more like a reading comprehension test. Conversely, the SAT has a required writing section while the ACT’s writing piece is optional. Here is the big difference: tradition and expectation. Colleges typically expect a student living in the Northeast (or on the West Coast) to be taking the SAT. And when they don’t, it can raise a red flag. It might not, but it could. And the last thing an applicant wants to do is give the admission office a reason to doubt, question, or reject her. So, stick with what is the norm from your high school. One final thought – if you’re from an area where both are widely used, take a practice test in both early in the process. Unless the ACT is significantly higher, stick with the SAT. Our tutoring experts tell us it is much more difficult to improve your ACT scores. Please visit www.icollegecounselor.net for more help and details. Regards, Steve Cohen