Who Should Choose the SAT Over the More Popular ACT? What if Practice Test Scores Are Inconclusive?

By November 15, 2016ACT, SAT

As predicted, the ACT surged past the SAT in popularity over the last few years. Many students had no interest in serving as guinea pigs for a new test that had been drastically overhauled on an aggressive timeline. At Compass, we were generally supportive of this point of view, and we found that in spring 2016 our students chose the ACT over the SAT at a rate of 8:1.

Collectively, this massive shift to the ACT may have been an overreaction. None of the academic content on the new SAT is particularly new or scary, and the ACT remains no picnic for many students. However, a majority of students sized up the alternatives and said “No thanks!” to being the beta-testers for an exam that we knew would face logistical challenges: delayed score reporting, a shortage of reliable practice tests, and confusion and misinformation regarding scaling and concordance with the ACT.

Now that the new SAT transition aftershocks are subsiding, how quickly will we see a return to equilibrium with the tests receiving equal consideration? What factors should current 11th graders – the class of 2018 – be considering as they choose between the SAT and the ACT?

In simplest terms, the students in the class of 2018 should behave much like the students in the class of 2016, who are now in their first year of college. 2016 grads did most of their testing in calendar year 2015, before the new SAT debuted. These students were well advised to weigh both tests evenly and rely heavily on the results of practice tests administered carefully and taken seriously.

Compass offers professionally administered and evaluated practice tests as a complimentary service to all our prospective students. We are also skilled and thoughtful in helping students interpret any PSAT or PreACT scores they may have. If the practice tests alone are sufficient to reveal a clear winner (or, as some students might say, a “least-worst” option), then we will advise students to accept this outcome, spend no more time sweating the decision, and get started on their preparation.

However, for roughly half of students who attempt both tests, the scores are essentially equivalent. (We use concordance tools found here to make this assessment.) In these cases, we dig especially deep into what practice tests can reveal,  and we engage the student in a nuanced evaluation of which test will ultimately be more comfortable and, therefore, more successful. Following are essential criteria to consider when comparing ACT and SAT practice test results:

Pacing, Time Management, and Feeling Rushed

After practice test scores, pacing and time management are the most important factors. The clock is not a friend to most SAT and ACT test-takers, who find they must keep a close eye on it and make sure every minute is spent as productively as possible. Proper pacing is not as simple as allocating equal time to each question because some questions are much harder than others.

Complicating matters further, the organization of questions by difficulty varies not only between the SAT and ACT but also on the different components within each test. (For a deep-dive into how complex this can be, check out this post on “Mapping the ACT“.)

In very simple terms, the SAT allows more seconds per question than the ACT. For some students, this difference is palpable and meaningful, and it helps cement their decision in favor of the SAT. Other students find that while the ACT may have a speedier QPM (questions per minute) ratio, the ACT feels less taxing in terms of the amount or sophistication of information in questions that must be ingested, considered, and calculated before answering.

Reading Sections are Tests of Speed and Endurance

The ACT and SAT Reading sections are instructive cases in point. ACT Reading allows students only 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, covering material from four lengthy reading passages. For many students, especially those who read slowly and/or anxiously, this format is intimidating and feels rushed.

SAT Reading is stretched out to 65 minutes and 52 questions across five passages. This is no walk in the park either. Clearly the QPM is lower, but students have to keep up their energy and focus for 30 minutes longer without a break. Further, some students feel that the sophistication and nuance of the SAT Reading is tougher, and this negates any advantage over the ACT. It is perhaps the quintessential “pick a lesser evil” scenario.

Science?! No Thanks!

ACT has a discrete component explicitly labeled “Science.” That’s case-closed in favor of the SAT for some students, as SAT doesn’t devote an entire section to science. SAT does however report a “Cross-Test Score” on “Analysis in Science” by compiling the science-themed questions from across the entire test.

Frankly, neither of the exams meaningfully assesses a student’s knowledge gained from science classes. The ACT Science is nothing like the Bio, Chem, or Physics tests students take in school. Rather, ACT Science is a unique mix of reading comprehension and quantitative assessment on science-related topics, tested under fast-paced conditions in an unfamiliar format. There isn’t much of a correlation between how much students like science classes in school and how comfortable they feel with the ACT Science. Many students think they should avoid it based on its reputation or based on their first, often bad, experience with it on a practice test.

We feel that with a reasonable amount of effort most students can overcome any initial aversion they may have to Science, but for some it remains a heavy knock against the ACT that ultimately tilts them towards the SAT. A sober assessment of actual performance on a practice test is key here (you may be noticing a theme). Don’t choose a test based on other students’ generalizations or your own assumptions.

Put Away Your Calculator

Math on the ACT is straightforward, albeit rather speedy: 60 minutes and 60 questions, with a calculator allowed on all questions. It goes “broad but shallow” by covering a wide range of topics. SAT Math takes a different approach focused heavily on Algebra and data analysis, clearly designed to align closely with College Board President David Coleman’s preferred interpretation of the Common Core principles.

Calculator use is not allowed on more than 1/3 of the SAT Math; inexplicably, the no-calculator questions are accorded less time per question than those on the Calculator section. The SAT does not provide students with multiple choice answers on some questions, leaving them to come up with their own answers to bubble in on nearly 1/4 of the questions. On the other hand, most of the formulas students might need are provided. ACT gives students only multiple choice questions but no formulas.

Grammar By Different Names, but Game Is the Same

ACT English and SAT Writing & Language assess similar skills, and meaningful gaps in student performance on these components are fairly rare. The pacing is different, however, with SAT allowing 33% more time per question than ACT. The ACT English has 75 questions in 45 minutes, a pace that tends to punish indecisive over-thinkers. On the other hand, SAT Writing & Language includes more questions that require students to interpret graphs and charts — which can be a time-suck — or to demonstrate a full understanding of the passage rather than assess a grammar rule in isolation. Overall, many students find ACT English and SAT Writing & Language to be the most approachable and coachable sections on the tests.

SAT Essay Doesn’t Care What You Think

Both the ACT and SAT completely revamped and expanded their essay tasks, which are optional add-ons at the end of the test. Few students will find that they are much better equipped for one test’s essay over the other (students in AP English Language courses are a notable exception, as they will likely find the SAT essay task to be more familiar).

There are significant differences, though. ACT asks you to – in 40 minutes – read a brief introduction of a contemporary issue along with three differing perspectives and then present an argument in which you evaluate those perspectives and include your own.

On the SAT essay, there is no room for your personal point of view. Instead, you read a previously published persuasive essay and then write a rhetorical analysis of the reasoning, evidence, and stylistic devices used. You’re given 50 minutes to accomplish this.

ACT has been plagued by unreliable and confusing results related to essay scoring and has responded with a series of changes around how scores are reported and whether scores can be challenged. College Board may very well be equally challenged to produce reliable (consistent) essay scores, but we have yet to see any data released publicly. The good news is that the vast majority – approaching 90% – of colleges no longer require the SAT or ACT essay at all (e.g. USC, NYU) or discount its importance (e.g. University of California system) relative to the other areas of the tests.

National Merit Says “No” to ACT

Students who qualify as National Merit Semifinalists based on 11th grade PSAT scores must ultimately post a “confirming” score on the SAT if they wish to have a shot at becoming a Finalist. You may feel this is unfair. We would agree with you. However, having to post a confirming SAT score should not push you to focus only on the SAT if other important indicators say ACT.

We have many students with NMSF standing who concentrate mainly on the ACT and then pick up an SAT late in the process, attaining a confirming score with ease. But if the decision were a toss-up anyway, students expecting to become National Merit Semifinalists will minimize their testing by choosing the SAT over the ACT.

Special Accommodations

It’s rare, but not unheard of, for a student with learning differences to be approved for accommodations (or specific types of accommodations) by one testing agency but not the other. This would certainly influence a decision between the SAT and ACT. We can help by administering practice tests to see if particular accommodations are worth pursuing.

Tricky Schedules

Both tests offer a half-dozen or more test date options scattered throughout the year. You may find that one test’s set of options suits you much better than the alternative set. The SAT is adding a summer (August) test date in 2017 that we expect to be extremely popular. Rumors of a July ACT test date are in the air, but we don’t expect this to be a reality until 2018 at the earliest. We don’t recommend that test date availability drive your decision between SAT and ACT, but it can be a tip factor.

Inconsistent College Policies and Requirements

While colleges generally accept the SAT and ACT equally in their assessment of what the scores mean, quirky differences exist in the administrative policies attached to the tests. “Superscoring” is the practice of giving students credit for their best scores on sections of the tests across multiple sittings. This practice remains slightly more prevalent for SAT scores than for ACT scores (without good reason). See here for a complete list.

On the other hand, there is a handful of colleges that have historically expected Subject Tests from their applicants who submit the SAT but not from those who submit the ACT.

Finally, and also without good reason, there are a few colleges who require the essay with one test but not the other.

We rarely see any of the above affect student decisions on which test to take in the first place, but these vagaries can come into play when deciding whether and which test to retake.

The “More Is More” Mindset

I’m including a few comments on this mentality not because it’s a good thing but rather because I hear it all too often as a rationale for over-prepping students. The “more is more” mindset reflects a set of assumptions, often driven by generalized anxiety and characterized by trying to play every possible strategic angle with too little regard for efficiency and return on investment of the student’s precious time and energy.

I believe this approach is misguided. A typical example would be when a student is pressed into a protracted engagement with both tests rather than focusing on just one. This is almost always wasted effort, at best. Worst case, the lack of focus and excessive demands on a student’s time can lead to undermining of the entire effort.

It’s perfectly fine to switch to the alternative test if the practice tests, feedback from tutors and advisors, and your own intuition are all indicating that is what you should do. But when setting up a testing plan, it is far better to use practice test review and thoughtful analysis up front to try to streamline your efforts around the one test that seems to suit you best. There are no extra “hero” points for acing both exams.

Got Questions? Contact Us!

Our talented team of Directors loves to help students and parents piece this puzzle together and make sure your testing plan is rock solid. Contact us anytime to see how we can help.

Adam Ingersoll

About Adam Ingersoll

Adam began his career in test prep in 1993 while at the University of Southern California, where he was a student-athlete on the basketball team, worked in the admission office, and graduated magna cum laude. Over the last two decades he has guided thousands of families to successful experiences with standardized tests and has mentored hundreds of the industry's most sought-after tutors. Adam is known nationally as a leading expert on college admission testing and is a frequent presenter at higher ed conferences, faculty development workshops, and school seminars.


  • Dear Adam,
    Thank you for this thorough and very readable comparison of the two tests. I think the students with whom I work will find it very useful.
    Take care,

  • Sandra Moore says:

    Hi, Adam…Excellent piece: clear and concise. I couldn’t agree with you more about how misguided prepping for both the ACT and SAT can be! Thanks.

  • Excellent comparative analysis. You covered all the ground I could possibly imagine, and then some. I hadn’t heard the “90 % of colleges don’t look at the Essay section” figure before. It will come as a big relief to many, many nervous test takers.

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