Should I Take the ACT, SAT or Both? - Pros and Cons of Each Test

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Though the SAT and ACT may seem like very similar exams, these tests have several major differences. By learning more about these exams, you can pick the one that best suits your testing preferences and learning style.

The SAT vs. The ACT

Standardized test scores play a major role in the college applications process, and the two most common exams are the SAT and the ACT. Both tests feature similar content and subject matter, but there are a number of differences between them that make for two very unique testing experiences.

Which Should I Take?

Just as there is no one 'perfect' college, there is no one perfect standardized test. Often, colleges require students to take either the ACT or SAT, but do not require applicants to sit for both exams, meaning that you have some degree of freedom and can choose which test to take.

SAT

You should pick the test that best matches your learning style, academic strengths, and testing preferences. The following list contains information about important features of the tests and how that might impact your decision.

Pace

The ACT features a quicker tempo, making it a good choice for students who prefer to work quickly. The average time per question on the ACT is just 50 seconds, compared to 70 seconds on the SAT. If you like taking your time and working at a more leisurely pace, the SAT may be the better pick.

Both tests are about the same length, but the SAT features fewer, longer sections while the ACT is broken up into more, smaller sections. If you have a hard time staying focused during long tasks, the ACT is the better choice, but if you get distracted by constant changes, the SAT is a more natural fit.

Science & Math

While both tests feature sections devoted to science, the ACT places much more emphasis, as it includes an entire 35-minute science section. If science isn't your strong suit, stick with the SAT.

The mathematics sections are a little more complicated. Students who excel at math may want to consider the SAT, which does not allow a calculator on every question. The test places an emphasis on mental math, which means you'll need a strong working memory to do well.

Scantron

The ACT does allow calculators on every question, but this does not mean that you should expect an easy time. This test does not provide basic formulas (the SAT does) and questions focus more on geometry and trigonometry. If these are your weak points, you may be better off with the SAT.

Format

Though this may seem like a minor issue, the SAT and ACT use different formats that affect your performance. The ACT alternates between 'ABCD' and 'EFGH' answer keys and uses spacing that is considered easier to read and reduces the odds of making a mistake.

ACT

This may not be a major issue for you, but if you have trouble with spatial perception, the ACT offers a more convenient (but no less difficult) testing format.

Should I Take Both Tests?

In the face of such a major decision, more and more students have decided to play it safe and leave no stone unturned. A New York Times Report found that 8,000 of Princeton's 26,000 applicants submitted scores from both tests, a figure that confirms a nationwide trend: more students are taking both exams.

Providing More Information

The college admissions process is a competitive one and high school students are constantly on the lookout for means to improve their chances. Taking both tests (and scoring well) sends the message that your performance was not a fluke; you didn't just get lucky on one test day, you consistently perform at a high level. The NYT article above contains a quote from Janet Rapelye, Princeton's dean of admissions, who says ''More information is always better. If students choose one or the other, that's fine, because both tests have value. But if they submit both, that generally gives us a little more information.''

Similar Content Means Preparation Overlap

Preparing for the ACT or SAT is a monumental task, so studying for both exams may seem like an impossible feat, especially for busy high school seniors.

Fortunately, the ACT and SAT focus on the same key subjects, which makes it a lot easier to prepare simultaneously. In other words, any studying you do for the SAT will also help you get ready for the ACT, and vice versa.

Reasons to Avoid Taking Both Tests

Of course, there's still a reason that taking just one test is still the standard instead of the exception.

Even if there is some overlap when studying, you're still looking at a lot of preparation. You'll need plenty of time to prepare for each individual exam and you can expect plenty of long nights leading up to your test days.

stressed student

The benefits of taking both tests are still a little iffy. While there is potential for a boost to your college resume, there's no guarantee that it will help, meaning you'll expend a lot of energy and time and end up with little to show for it. In fact, taking on so much work may end up hurting your scores, which defeats the entire purpose of the exercise.

At the end of the day, it's up to you to make the final decision. For most students, it's a good idea to pick one test and focus exclusively on preparing for it. Taking both the ACT and SAT can have benefits, but the meager rewards do not justify the more significant risks that you take when you make such an ambitious move.

By Bill Sands
September 2017
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