Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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SAT vs. ACT – Which Test to Take?

SAT or ACT ? Which test should you take? That question is being asked a lot these days, and the answers can be confusing.  To help shed some light on the subject I talked to educational expert Barbara D. Levine, owner and director of Chyten Educational Services in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Barbara, welcome to the blog!
Thank you, Sharon. Glad to do it.

Is there a disadvantage to taking either the ACT or  SAT?

No. Every college now in the country takes either test. So there is no disadvantage to taking one over the other.

It seems like many people feel the SAT is the better choice.

There’s probably still some regional bias in the northeast, where more students still take the SAT. I think that’s because the ACT didn’t start here. The ACT started in the mid-west and was a mid-west exam for many years. It’s only over the last three or four years that the test migrated to both coasts, and the last two or so that every school has accepted both tests.

What are the differences between the ACT and SAT?

The two tests are structured differently. The timing of each test, the pacing within each section, the sections themselves, the content of each test, and how the questions are presented are all different.

Can you elaborate on that? Sure.

The sections are different.

  • The ACT has four multiple choice sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science) plus the essay.
  • The SAT has 10 sections, including the essay. The sections are made up of 3 components: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing.

The content is different.

  • The English section of the ACT focuses on grammar and is heavily weighted toward punctuation. The SAT includes grammar and stresses vocabulary.
  • The math section of the ACT  includes some trigonometry and algebra 2, which aren’t on the SAT.
  • The science section of the ACT is more like a reading exercise. It’s not really a test of your knowledge of science. It asks you to analyze data that’s presented in the form of science questions and charts and graphs, but it doesn’t test your knowledge of biology or physics or chemistry.

The timing is different.

  • On the ACT, you complete each section in turn. The first section is always English for 45 minutes; the next is math for 60 minutes, then reading for 35 minutes and then science for 35 minutes. The essay for the ACT is always at the end of the test.
  • On the SAT the essay is always first. Each section is either 20 or 25 minutes in length. Sections alternate throughout the test, so you can encounter a reading section next to a math section on one test, but two math sections in a row on another test.

The questions are presented differently.

  • The ACT is written in a straightforward fashion. You don’t have to worry about reading between the lines or parsing out any language.
  • The SAT is written in a much more complicated fashion and requires you to analyze what they’re really asking. In fact, for many questions you’re given 2 out of 5 possible answers that are very close. That makes it much harder to determine which is the right answer, because you’re expected to analyze the language that’s being used in the question.

The pacing is different.

  • Because the ACT is written in a much more straight-forward fashion than the SAT, more questions are included in each section and the pacing is quicker.  For instance, in the math section there are 60 questions that need to be answered in 60 minutes.  If a student doesn’t finish the first 40 questions within about a half hour, he/she will probably run out of time and not get to all 60 questions.

How Do I Choose?

SAT –  If you’re very analytic and you like to dissect things mentally, then the SAT might be a very good fit.

ACT – You don’t need that same sort of analytical focus you do for the SAT, you just have to know your content. You still have to know your grammar, and you have to know your math.


When it comes to writing it depends on your writing style. If you’re a good writer either test can be a good fit. Both tests have essays. (The essay on the ACT is optional so you want to take it “with writing,” which means with the essay.)

SAT — looks for examples that you can pull from literature and from history. It wants you to use very strong vocabulary and a good turn of phrase. They’re looking for somebody who can express themselves in a very sophisticated fashion.

ACT —  is not looking for that. The ACT is looking to see if you can make your case and give examples, but these can be examples from real life and based on your own experience. The ACT is looking for a little more of a straightforward essay where the vocabulary or command of literature is probably not weighted quite as highly.

Chyten offers a diagnostic test to help students decide. Yes. Chyten has spent a number of years developing a diagnostic tool in order to evaluate up front which test is the better fit for a student so students don’t have to focus on both. And that is a huge time saver for the student.

If I don’t have a tutor, what study tips do you recommend?

  1.     Come up with a plan where you work on preparing for the test probably  about 3 months in advance.
  2.     Try and carve out time every other day or every third day.
  3.     Go through each of the sections.
  4.     Do sample problems.
  5.     Review math. Reviewing math is important because half of the math in both tests is basic algebra and geometry. Most juniors are already at algebra 2 or they’re in pre-calc, so they may have forgotten the basics. You need to review them, and that takes a little time.

Can parents be helpful in this process or do they need to stay out of the way? I think a student needs to be self-motivated. Where parents can be helpful is obviously in being supportive and helping them to figure out how to fit this in to their schedule. But the student has to do the work. The parents can’t do that.

If a student’s having trouble, should they think about finding help? Yes. Even if you are a good test-taker, the challenge is these tests are not like anything else you’ll be doing. For instance, students aren’t taught formal grammar anymore, yet there’s a lot of grammar-based sections in either test. The same for math. You may be a great math student, but being in a math class is very different from taking one of these tests because in math class you’re focused on a single area. Let’s say you’re in algebra 2 or in pre-calc, you stay focused for an entire academic year on that one subject. On the ACT or the SAT you have to be able to bounce back and forth between all types of math questions. So on the SAT you’ve got an algebra question next to a statistics question next to a geometry question next to a numbers and operations question. There’s no method or continuity as to how those questions are asked, and it takes some practice.

How many times can a student take the ACT or SAT? Many students take it three times. There’s no problem taking it three times, but you may not want to take it more than that. We found that often you may get diminishing returns after you’ve taken it three times.

But up to three times you can still get better scores?
Yes. For many students it’s an incremental process. You have to keep working it, and the more time you spend with it the better you get.

Thanks, Barbara!
You’re very welcome, Sharon.

Chyten Educational Services
New Canaan, Connecticut