Students often struggle to choose the "correct" standardized test for them when applying for colleges. However, with the advice contained in this post, the choice between taking the ACT or SAT can be an easier one to make.
While there are many differentiating attributes of the two exams, arguably the most critical difference students see when beginning preparation for these tests is that of their math sections. While the ACT has more straightforward mathematics questions, sometimes as simple as an equation to be solved or a logarithm, the SAT focuses more on word problems and problem-solving. This is not to say the ACT is entirely free of word problems, but it does speak to the general composition of the math section. The ACT goes through many math concepts, but the SAT will tend to test students on similar concepts thrown at them through different wording and intentionally longer, paragraph-structured questions.
Another key difference that might be more obvious is the fact that the ACT has a Science section of its examination while the SAT does not. A common mistake is to rule out the ACT because of this, assuming it is more for students who are especially strong in or plan on further pursuing science. However, the science section can be broken down in a way that makes it more of a reading section than a science section. All answers to the questions in the ACT's science section can be found in the question and graphics provided, requiring little outside knowledge. The SAT, in contrast, does not offer a science section but does, however, test scientific concepts.
The ACT is also faster paced than the SAT, with less time to be spent on each question. For example, each question on the reading section for the ACT should take on average 53 seconds to complete while it should be in the 75-second range for this section of the SAT. This time advantage on the SAT holds for all of its sections.
Another advantage of taking the SAT is the number of answer choices offered per question. For example, ACT students are not penalized for wrong answers, so it is in your best interest to guess questions you cannot figure out. The advantage of taking the SAT, however, is that there are only four answer choices on the SAT while there are five answer choice possibilities on the ACT. This means that in the case that a guess is necessary, students have a 25% chance of getting it right on the SAT and only a 20% chance of choosing correctly on the ACT.
At Student Agencies Tutoring, our curriculum has been developed uniquely to help students maximize their scores on these exams while instructing them on specific strategies they can use, once they've taken our diagnostic quiz. While it might not seem like an important step to take in the grand scheme of the college application process, discovering early-on which test is right for you is a crucial building block in developing a robust application based on your strengths and weaknesses.