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ACT or SAT? That Is The (Often-Asked) Question...

One of the most frequent questions that parents ask my LGC colleagues and me is, "Should my child take the ACT or SAT?" Some go for bonus points and ask if their child should take both tests (the answer to that one is almost always no - see more on this below). For the original question, the answer is... it depends.

Let's start by dispelling the most prominent longstanding myth about these tests, which is some version of "East and West Coast schools prefer the SAT." This has never been the case. ALL colleges that require or consider standardized test scores have always accepted the ACT or SAT with NO PREFERENCE. The aforementioned misconception arose from the fact that, in past generations, students tended to attend a college in a much closer proximity to their home, and the SAT was the test that most students took on either coast – so they used that for their applications to schools in their area (and more people in the central areas of the country took and utilized the ACT to apply to colleges).

Because colleges do not favor one test over the other, it is vital for a student to determine WHICH test is the better format that will allow them to maximize their score. I advise determining this by having a student take a full diagnostic ACT and comparing that to the student's PSAT score, if they have one (the PSAT is the exact same format as the SAT, only slightly shorter and slightly less difficult; the scoring scale accounts for this slight discrepancy and provides a PSAT score that approximates the score the student would have achieved on the SAT). If a student has not had an opportunity to take a PSAT, we advise taking a full diagnostic SAT as well for comparison purposes.

For many students, the scoring will reveal a clear "winner" between the two tests, with the student achieving a significantly higher composite score on one test. Other students will score similarly on both tests, and thus a deeper dive into subject scores, types of problems missed, pacing, and more is warranted. I review the diagnostic tests for each of our incoming students to parse their test results, examine these nuances, and develop a customized recommendation for each student.

I know some of you may be wondering, so at a 10,000 ft view, here are the differences between the two tests:

The SAT contains four timed subject tests that fall into two larger sections:

Evidence Based Reading and Writing section: Reading = 65 minutes, Writing & Language = 35 minutes

Math section: Math/no calculator allowed = 25 minutes, Math/calculator = 55 minutes. Both math sections contain both multiple choice AND fill in the blank answers.

A student receives scores ranging from 200-800 for each of these two sections, for a total composite score ranging from 400-1600. Note that 50% of the SAT score is derived from Math, which is significant should a student be either a strong math student or, conversely, should they find math particularly challenging.

The SAT offers a bit more generous time per question, but the question types are more variable and, particularly in the Reading section, can be more difficult (college level passages on the SAT vs. high school level passages on the ACT).

The ACT contains four timed subject tests with ALL multiple choice questions:

English = 45 minutes

Math (calculator allowed on all) = 60 minutes

Reading = 35 minutes

Science (mainly a test of reading and critical thinking) = 35 minutes

A student receives a score ranging from 1-36 in each subject, and these are averaged to determine an overall composite score of 1-36.

The ACT is a bit faster paced, but the content and question types are more straightforward and consistent/repetitive in nature, so students have an opportunity to master content as well as practice the pacing and strategies that work best for them.

As I noted in the beginning, I always recommend that a student select one test and devote their time and energy to preparing to maximize their score on that one. trying to prepare for both can take a significant amount of time (which I'd prefer that students devote to their school work and extracurricular activities), and it can also lead to confusion on pacing an strategies. Some students will have to take the other test once for a handful of reasons – the most common of which arises if they live in a state in which one of these tests is mandated for graduation from a public high school. If that is this case for your child and the mandated test is not the one for which they have prepared, just encourage them to do their best on the other test. There is significant content overlap, and studying for one test does offer some solid foundational preparation for the other. Moreover, for almost ALL colleges, students can choose which test scores they submit, so they will not have to provide the score from the in school test in the vast majority of cases.

In an upcoming edition of the Clear Path Forward to College newsletter, I will address testing vs. choosing to apply test optional. If you have additional questions about what I have shared about ACT vs. SAT and/or are seeking diagnostic testing, we would be happy to assist your family! We offer in-person testing and tutoring in the Chicago area in our Lincolnshire and Barrington offices as well as Zoom-proctored testing and tutoring across the country. Our Parent Liaisons partner with each family to offer support as well as wrap-around services beyond test prep (including assistance with our high school and college consulting, essay coaching, and application guidance services and packages). Please reach out to us anytime at 847-363-6780,, or via filling out our request for a free 20-minute consult call on our website at #ThankYou


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