The Five Questions You Should Ask Before Deciding to Take the ACT or SAT

Every college in America now accepts either the SAT or ACT. So, how do you know which test to choose? Here are five questions to ask yourself to help make the right decision.

1. Can you read quickly and with high comprehension?

Yes: If you are able to read reasonably fast (at least 250 words per minute) and with a high level of comprehension (80-90%), then either the ACT or the SAT is an acceptable choice. Both exams require quite a bit of reading, so being a fast, accurate reader gives you a better chance on both exams.

No: If you are a slower reader or suffer from low reading comprehension, the SAT is a better choice for you.

Reason: The ACT requires you to read more material in a shorter period of time. Also, the reading questions found in the ACT Reading Test are not in the natural order of the passage as they are on the SAT.

2. Are you comfortable reading passages with scientific content, including those accompanied by tables, graphs, and charts?

Yes: If you are comfortable with scientific content that includes data representation found in tables, graphs, and charts, you may consider taking either the SAT or the ACT.

No: If you are not comfortable with scientific content that includes data representation found in tables, graphs, and charts, you should avoid taking the ACT.

Reason: While both the SAT and the ACT have passages and questions that contain scientific content, only the ACT has a dedicated Science Test. In this section, students must read six science-oriented passages, the vast majority of which contain tables, graphs, and charts. To be successful in this section, students must be able to quickly interpret and extract data from tables, graphs, and charts, and to fully comprehend information found in the passages. On average, ACT test takers have less than six minutes to read each science passage and answer six or seven questions.

3. Are you a sprinter or a pacer?

Sprinter: Sprinters are better suited to taking the ACT. On average, across the whole test, students have less than a minute to solve each question. This includes the time needed to read and evaluate passages, grammar sections, and math questions.

Pacer: Pacers are better suited to taking the SAT. On average, students have one minute and 15 seconds to answer each question. While this may not sound like a long time, compared to the ACT, it is like a gentle canoe ride down a steady stream versus a whitewater adventure down the Colorado River.

Reason: The SAT is considered to be more of a strategic test, while the ACT is thought to be more of a test of knowledge. While these characterizations are not 100% accurate, it is accurate to say that students who are uncomfortable moving at a swift pace will have difficulty finishing sections found in the ACT.

4. Are you more effective evaluating an author’s style, technique, and success, or giving and supporting your own opinions on a given topic?

Author’s Style, Technique, and Success: If you are better identifying an author’s style, structure, technique, and success, you are better off taking the SAT.

Giving Your Own Opinion: If you are more comfortable giving and supporting your own opinion on a given topic, you are better off taking the ACT.

Reason: (Note that both the ACT and SAT Essays are optional.) The SAT Essay contains a relatively long source text and asks you to evaluate the style, structure, technique, and success of a writer in accomplishing his task. The ACT Essay provides a one-paragraph statement about a topic and three perspectives. Students must comment on all three perspectives and then offer their own, which may agree with all, one, or none of the given perspectives.

5. Do I want to take both the ACT and SAT?

Yes: There is really no harm, danger, or downside to taking both the ACT and the SAT. It does require more work, of course, however the benefit could very well be a better college admission profile.

No: It is certainly easy to understand why you do not want to take both tests. Preparing for and taking each test requires a great deal of time and dedicated effort. Take comfort in knowing that most students focus on one test or the other.

Reason: Since colleges accept scores from either or both tests, there is no downside to taking and submitting scores from ACT and SAT. However, you should think about whether preparing for two tests will lessen your ability to perform at your highest level on either one of them. Of course, in all cases, you control your scores. So, you can take whichever tests you would like as often as you would like and only submit the scores that you want colleges to see.

Word of caution: If, when you register for a test, you elect to have the testing organization automatically send scores to colleges, you will lose the ability to determine which scores are actually sent to colleges. We suggest you use this election only if you have carefully considered all the consequences.