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ACT vs. SAT--Which is better for you?

Updated on November 5, 2007


By MICHELLE SLATALLA Published: November 4, 2007

FROM the moment I gave birth, I began to gird myself for the difficult questions that tiny, nosy people might one day ask. I prepared answers worthy of a White House press secretary to address such subjects as teenage sex ("never heard of it") and drug use ("mild decongestants only").

So I was ready when my daughter, a junior, cornered me in the kitchen the other day.

"Mom, can I ask you a question?" she asked.

"Sure, anything," I lied.

She had heard from her teachers that some students score higher on the ACT and others on the SAT, and so she was wondering how I had decided which test to take, and did I think she should follow the same strategy.

I considered possible answers. The last time I was exposed to the horror of standardized testing was in 1979, when I vaguely remember rolling out of bed early one Saturday to frantically root around for two No. 2 pencils to take to a test center, where I nodded off during a particularly boring passage in the reading section.

"Wouldn't you rather hear about my underage drinking?" I asked.

A generation ago, taking a standardized test was a no-brainer: it was mainly a matter of geography. In the Midwest, students took the ACT. If you lived on the coasts - or were applying to a highly selective college or university there - you took the SAT.

Now, with some Ivy League schools rejecting nine of 10 qualified candidates, applicants are looking for any edge to improve their chances. Many, particularly those in traditional SAT territory, are taking both tests and submitting the higher score or both scores. In the last five years, the number of ACT takers on the East Coast has risen 66 percent, and on the West Coast 46 percent, according to ACT Inc.

But not everybody has the time or money to prepare for both tests. And the truth is, most probably don't need to. While the tests have distinct personalities - the ACT is curriculum-based, while the SAT is aimed more at general reasoning and problem-solving skills - spokesmen for both say their formats favor only one type of student: the one with a good grasp of material taught in rigorous high school courses.

Similarly, colleges swear they don't prefer one over the other. "Since it's a choice you can make, it has the feeling of being a significant choice, fraught with implication, but I don't think it does matter," says Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College. "Either is fine with us, and we don't have a feeling that either favors students with any particular profile."

Still, some college counselors believe otherwise. In the absence of quantitative studies, they suggest asking yourself a few questions.

1. Which format feels right?

You can take predictive tests (the PSAT and PLAN) sophomore year and extrapolate scores you're likely to get on the SAT and ACT. The practice tests cover much the same material as their respective cousins, which they imitate in style and content.

Experts recommend that if your school gives both, take both. If not, test prep companies offer free full-length practice tests for the ACT and SAT online (at, Petersons .com and

"Take each test in as realistic conditions as possible, with no distractions, timing yourself," says Scott Johns, a Peterson's product manager. "Your score is a benchmark, but also think about how you felt about taking each test. Did you understand the format? Did one experience cause more stress than the other?"

2. How long can you sit without fidgeting?

If you have a short attention span and difficulty maintaining focus, the ACT may be for you, says Marybeth Kravets, a college counselor in suburban Chicago and the "K" in the K & W college guides for students with special needs. The ACT lasts two hours, 55 minutes (plus 30 minutes with the optional writing test). The SAT lasts three hours, 45 minutes.

Similarly, counselors say that students with learning disabilities that make it difficult to process information may do better on the ACT. "That's because the ACT questions are more knowledge-based and straightforward," says Scott White, director of guidance at Montclair High School in New Jersey. "The SAT is more nuanced, puzzlelike, trickier."

Both cover English and math, but there are notable variations in content. For instance, in measuring verbal skills, the SAT focuses on vocabulary whereas the ACT concentrates on grammar, punctuation and syntax. And if you want to avoid science and trigonometry, stick with the SAT, which has neither.

3. Overachiever or underachiever?

College counselors say they see two groups of students, with distinctly different approaches to learning, who may score markedly higher on one test or the other.

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