Choosing Between The SAT and The ACT

Jon Goldsmith, now a senior at Columbia Prep and already accepted into his first-choice college, faced a difficult decision last year when he began preparing for a battery of college admissions tests. 

Most of his classmates were studying for the SAT exam, which they would take for the first time in the Spring of their junior year.

But Jon felt that the ACT offered an appealing option, and he took the test multiple times: "Taking so many ACTs actually gave me more confidence when I eventually took the SAT," he said. 

Traditionally overlooked in the Northeast, the ACT is rapidly becoming an alternative to the well-established SAT. It was taken by 44,000 New York State students in 2008, up from just 27,000 in 2004, according to ACT Inc. 

Parents of students in the Northeast tend to be unfamiliar with the ACT simply because the test has been marketed to the Midwest and South for many years, while the SAT’s prime markets have been the East and West coasts. Yet both exams are accepted by every college in the U.S. except for eight schools in Texas that accept only the SAT, and most colleges acknowledge no preference for one test over the other. 

Perhaps the main difference when it comes to admissions is that students taking the ACT exam can generally apply to colleges without having to take multiple SAT 2 "subject tests," which are often required if students take the SAT. That leaves students with a choice. Although some take both the SAT and ACT in an attempt to gain any possible admissions edge, they don’t need to do so. 

While both the SAT and ACT assess students on reading, math, writing, and grammar skills, the ACT is billed as a "curriculum-based" test, which students say feels more like taking a test for one of their school courses. If you know the material, you’ll do well; if you don’t, you won’t get the question right. The SAT, on the other hand, is an "aptitude" test, which pushes students to use critical-thinking and problem-solving skills often in a more abstract manner than the ACT. And, although most students do comparably well on both tests, choosing the right one is, more than anything, a question of learning style. 

The ACT may be a more user-friendly test for students. ACT has always allowed students to report to colleges only the test scores they want.  (The College Board just reintroduced "Score Choice" this year, which allows students to send their best test scores to colleges.) And, unlike the SAT, the ACT has no wrong answer penalty and is a shorter test (three hours if the optional writing section is not completed, compared to nearly four hours for the SAT). 

While it is shorter, the ACT packs a great deal more into each of its sections and students often report feeling rushed for time when taking the test. In addition, the ACT has many more reading-based questions than the SAT. If time or reading comprehension are issues, students are better off with the SAT. 

Many parents wonder if taking the ACT will hurt their child’s chance of admission, especially to the most selective colleges. But top schools respect the ACT as a good predictor of student success. Yale, for example, requires that applicants submit two SAT 2 subject tests if they take the SAT, but no additional tests if they take the ACT with Writing. 

Keith Berman, President of Manhattan-based Options for College and a former Yale and Harvard admissions interviewer, says that "what colleges like about the ACT is that it is more like a college test in that you can prepare for it and that it is subject-specific." 

At the same time, a small but growing number of colleges are becoming "test-optional," not requiring prospective students to have taken the SAT or ACT. "These colleges don’t believe in testing. They think it puts pressure on students, and they would rather see students work on their grades and extracurriculars instead," says Laura Clark, Director of College Counseling at the Fieldston School in Riverdale. Clark said that "given the proof that tutoring really helps improve test scores, these colleges see it as an equity issue because kids who can’t afford tutoring can be discriminated against in the process."

The best way for students to decide which test will best match their learning styles is for them to take "mock" exams under timed conditions in a test-like environment, which many test prep companies offer. (Full disclosure: 

I run a company that offers such services.) In the end, the choice between the SAT and ACT does not have to be an anxiety-filled one. There are clear differences in structure and style between the two exams. By doing some early investigation of these differences, students and parents can choose the right exam to prepare for – long before test day.

Tim Levin is the Founder and CEO of Bespoke Education, with offices in Manhattan and Irvington. For more information,

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