Conventional wisdom says to take both the SAT and ACT as a diagnostic to see which one’s the better fit. But when you have more information at your fingertips, you really shouldn’t. And with the pandemic, it’s challenging to take both these days, not to mention time-consuming. Keep reading for an easier way to choose which test to take.
Understanding the Differences Between the SAT and ACT
When deciding which test is for you, it’s important to know the key differences between the tests. This will help you make an informed decision. On a basic level, the SAT and ACT are pretty similar in that they’re both college entrance exams. Colleges don’t prefer one over the other.
However, the SAT and ACT vary widely in pacing and structure. Generally, the SAT tests more critical thinking while the ACT is more content-knowledge based. View the chart below for an overview of differences in structure, timing, scoring, and content.
|Structure & Timing
|4 Sections, 3 hrs
(1) Reading: 52 questions, 65 min
(2) Writing & Language: 44 questions, 35 min
(3) Math (No Calculator): 20 questions, 25 min
(4) Math (with Calculator): 38 questions, 55 min
|4 Sections, 2 hrs & 55 min
(1) English: 75 questions, 45 min
(2) Math: 60 questions, 60 min
(3) Reading: 40 Questions, 35 min
(4) Science: 40 questions, 35 min
|Verbal (Reading & Writing sections combined): 800 possible
Reading: subscore of 40
Writing & Language: subscore 40
Math (Math sections combined): 800 possible
Verbal and math scores are added together for a total possible cumulative score of 1600.
|Each section receives a score out of 36. Those 4 scores are averaged together for a cumulative score of 36.
|More critical thinking and emphasis on vocabulary
|Advanced/broader range of math topics; analytical science skills
There are other key differences not mentioned in the chart. The ACT gives significantly less time per question: 50 seconds per question on average versus the SAT’s 67 seconds per question. On the math section, the SAT also has grid-in questions with no answer choices. On the ACT, the math section has 5 answer choices as opposed to 4. The reading section on the SAT also has 5 passages while the ACT reading has only 4.
Because of these fundamental pacing and style differences, your typical SAT student looks a lot different from your typical ACT student. Most students lean towards one test. Other students have virtually equivalent scores on both tests. If studying for the SAT or ACT on your own, take practice tests of both to see which you score higher on. Use a site like this to convert and compare your scores. If there’s a significant difference of at least 50 points, you likely lean towards a certain test.
Which test should you take?
Each test caters to a different set of strengths, which is why it’s important for a student to understand their unique skill set. That’s where our secret weapon comes: Mindprint. A single Mindprint diagnostic can give you the information you need. Mindprint is a learning assessment that tests for a student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. When you know where your strengths lie, it makes the task of choosing which test to focus on so much easier.
Mindprint assesses 10 core cognitive skills: Abstract Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, Spatial Perception, Attention, Working Memory, Flexible Thinking, Verbal Memory, Visual Memory, Processing Speed, and Visual Motor Speed. These skills can be further categorized into complex reasoning/critical thinking, executive functions, memory, and speed/efficiency.
Abstract reasoning: understanding non-language-based information
Verbal reasoning: understanding language-based information
Spatial perception: understanding how objects relate in space
Attention: sustaining focus
Working memory: juggling multiple bits of information in short-term memory
Flexible thinking: thinking about things in a different way
Verbal memory: recalling language-based information
Visual memory: recalling non-language-based information
Processing speed: how fast you process and respond to new information
Visual motor speed: how well your hands and eyes work together
Skills Needed for Each Test
Some skills are needed for both tests. These include attention, working memory, and visual motor speed. With attention, both tests are pretty long, clocking in at 3 hours, so it’s important to be able to maintain your focus throughout. Taking several timed practice tests can also help build your test-taking stamina. Working memory is needed for multi-step problem-solving. Visual motor speed comes into play when you’re taking notes and bubbling in your answers.
A student whose strengths lie in processing speed, spatial perception, visual memory, and abstract reasoning are better suited for the ACT. With the ACT, speed trumps accuracy since you’re under a time crunch; high processing speed is a must. Spatial perception comes in handy on the science section and with geometry math questions (ACT has more geometry questions), allowing you to picture how objects relate in space. Visual memory helps you remember math formulas, which are all too important since the ACT math section doesn’t provide any. Abstract reasoning factors in on advanced math topics and the science section.
Flexible thinking, verbal reasoning, and verbal memory strengths serve you best on the SAT. And unlike the ACT, accuracy is more important than speed. Flexible thinking helps you face the trickier questions the SAT is known for and the critical-thinking heavy reading section. Problem solving and fluidity is key. Verbal reasoning will also help you read between the lines. Strong verbal memory helps you remember vocabulary needed for the SAT.
Don’t get discouraged if a skill listed above is one of your weaknesses. Mindprint also gives you tools and strategies to support weaker cognitive skills, which is why understanding your strengths and weaknesses is so helpful. You can still do well on the test with practice. Streamline super tutors are also trained to help you strengthen these areas.
Get the full picture. Inquire about the Mindprint diagnostic today.