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Should I take the SAT or the ACT?

CalculatorPhotoAnswer a few questions about yourself and get an idea of which one may be a better fit for you…

As you’re likely to have noticed, the SAT has generally predominated in discourses about standardized testing for college admissions.  This is because traditionally, colleges have used the SAT as the gauge by which to evaluate candidate admissions.  But in recent years most colleges and universities have begun to accept ACT scores from applicants – some in addition to SAT scores, and others in lieu of them.

Of course the best way to determine what your scores might be on either test is to put yourself through some practice tests (I would suggest they be both full-length and timed, so you can get a sense of your endurance levels and the speed at which you work).  The College Board and the ACT both offer online practice tests, and if you’d rather take the test under actual conditions (with a pencil and paper rather than in front of a computer screen), check the testing section of your local library.  You’ll also be able to make a well-informed decision based on how you did on the PSAT (generally a good indication of how you’ll do on the SAT) or the PLAN (a prep test very similar to the ACT).  If the colleges of your choice aren’t picky about which test they accept, you may want to consider taking both and choosing the better of the two scores to send.  If you’re applying to many schools, the chances are better that some will take either while some will prefer both – another reason why it might be good to have the scores for both available when it’s time to turn your applications in.

Here are a few parting tips. See which definitions fit you best and if your strengths match one test or the other. 

The SAT may be the test for you if:

–  You’ve got the stamina for long tests that are broken down into small sections, requiring short bursts of attentiveness

–  You excel in writing, you’re a grammar rockstar, and you can explain to your mom why she was wrong when she asked, “Why is nobody wearing their red jerseys to the homecoming game?”

–  You did well on the PSAT

–  You LOVE reading comprehension and reasoning skills; you’re a solver of problems and a doer of puzzles

–  You’ve still not been entirely wooed by trigonometry or calculus and much prefer to be tested somewhere near a 10th-grade math level

–  You enjoy non-traditional math questions (you problem-solver, you!) with abstract functions and symbols that may have no real equivalence to the academic world

–  You prefer your concepts to be tested in isolation (for instance, your grammar tested in single sentence units) rather than in context

–  You find vocabulary neither deleterious nor ignominious, and consider it sagacious both to amass more words and to speak candidly (but not loquaciously) with your friends who find studying vocabulary onerous.

–  You want a test that’s “coachable” (i.e. you’re fairly good at cramming for a test), you feel you can get the “tricks” and the language well enough before the test to improve your scores dramatically (the SAT often sees much more dramatic score improvements than does the ACT)

The ACT may be the test for you if:

–  Endurance testing doesn’t rank among your favorite Olympic sports – but you do prefer a simple structure to the tests you’ve got to take (i.e. 4 longer sections rather than 10 short ones)

–  You’re a strong student with great classroom knowledge but tend to lose your savvy when faced with the big tests

–  You took some challenging classes in high school and received good grades in most or all of them

–  You did well on the PLAN

–  You’re trying never to write an essay again – though if you must write one, you prefer it be subjective and personal rather than recall facts, figures, and the names of every member of the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath”

–  You’re really not into getting penalized for incorrect answers

–  You’re so great with time management that you keep track of all your friends’ schedules

–  You read well and with relative speed

–  You can write a good paper and read a passage well, but you’re no proofreader, and don’t necessarily have the grammar instruction to catch your own or others’ finer mistakes

–  Reading comprehension gets you a bit down, or you have an overall preference for math or science

–  You’ve got a place in your heart for charts, graphs, and science reasoning questions that are most likely unrelated to any school curriculum you’ve ever seen

–  You prefer your tests to gauge classroom achievement rather than abstract thinking

–  You want to reserve the right to send only the highest of your scores to the colleges of your choice, in the (so small it’s virtually nonexistent) case one of your tests is a flop

–  You’re not a fan of trick questions, and you’ve got plenty of time to study the subject matter required of you

It is also imperative to remember that these scores alone are not going to be the deciding factor of your candidacy.  Among the other things colleges will look at are GPA, extracurricular activities, jobs and leadership positions you’ve held, clubs you’ve participated in and belong to, community service you’ve completed, your letters of recommendation and your admissions essay.

And as a final note, there are some colleges that are recognizing the shortcomings of standardized tests in assessing all applicants.  A good number of highly selective schools (Middlebury, Bard, Colombia, and Bowdoin among them) do not require SAT or ACT scores – though each school has its own additional requirements.  For a list of colleges and universities that do not require these scores, check out

How did you make your decision? Share your experience with us…

Determining which test to take is half the battle: the other half, of course, consists of preparing and taking the exam of your choosing… so be sure to stay tuned to for more answers to the FAQs about these tests and options to prepare for either test.