March 20, 2024

“Should I focus on the ACT or the SAT?”

This is a question we hear often. The answer: Focus on the test that paints you in the best light. Here’s how to determine which test improves your academic profile.


History of the Two Tests
First, a little background knowledge of the two tests helps to explain their subtle differences. The SAT was first administered almost 100 years ago. While the abbreviation SAT does not stand for anything today, it originally stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” That original name is telling: The test was designed to measure students’ aptitude–or potential–for success in higher education, particularly the Ivy League schools that made up the early version of the College Board in the early to mid 1900s. Of course, today’s SAT is a nationwide test, taken by 1.7 million students in 2022. The SAT is still administered by the College Board, the same group that oversees Advanced Placement testing.The ACT is the SAT’s primary competitor as a college admissions assessment. The ACT is administered by a non-profit of the same name and coincidentally includes initials that no longer stand for anything (previously the acronym stood for “American College Testing”). The ACT score is a measure of student readiness to successfully complete entry-level college coursework. While the tests are similar in terms of what they actually measure, there are subtle differences. As a general rule, the ACT favors students who have a strong educational background, having been exposed to rigorous curriculum and advanced coursework. The SAT tends to favor students who have innate problem-solving abilities and are natural “thinkers,” likely due to its roots as an aptitude test instead of strict achievement test.


Format of the Two Tests
The format of the two tests differ only slightly. Here are some basic comparisons:

  • The overall time to complete each test is similar (about 3 hours).
  • The ACT includes a science section, which is not covered on the SAT.
  • The SAT has unique math questions that are open-ended (i.e., not multiple choice) as well as a math section that does not allow the use of a calculator.
  • Both tests include sections where students correct passages for proper grammar and writing and respond to typical comprehension questions after reading excerpts from a variety of genres.
  • The scoring scales are vastly different: ACT scores are reported on a scale of 1-36 while SAT scores are on a scale of 400-1600.
  • Both tests are offered nationally on Saturdays throughout the year, although not on the same Saturdays.


Comparing Scores from the Two Tests
So, how do students know which test paints them in the best light? Well, look at the scores for Thomas, who took the ACT the summer before his junior year. Then he took the PSAT at school in the fall of his junior year. His scores are below. Is a 32 on the ACT better or worse than a 1430 on the PSAT? The way to know is to look at the percentile rank. That number tells Thomas the percent of all test takers that he outscored on that particular test. (For the ACT, you must click the “How do I Compare?” button in your MyACT account.)


And the Winner Is…
The score of 32 on the ACT outscores 96% of all students. The score of 1430 on the PSAT outscores 99% of all students. Thus, Thomas should focus on the SAT because he outscores more students on that test. His SAT score will improve his academic profile.Many college advisors recommend high school students take both tests, which is good advice. Analyzing the percentile ranks, though, gives students an early indication of which test is better for them.