A Quick Guide to the SAT & ACT

A Quick Guide to the SAT & ACT

Devyn Di Meola, Editor

As January progresses and students frantically sign up for standardized tests, the most pressing question on every junior’s mind is, “SAT or ACT?” Although many students earn similar scores on both tests, the assessments evaluate different information and skills, so performing better on one than the other is common. Signing up for the right test could be the easiest way to boost your scores and impress potential college admissions officers.


  1. Know your academic strengths and weaknesses.

One of the biggest differences between the ACT and SAT is that the ACT is geared to focus more on science and mathematics. The science portion, which the SAT does not include, tests your ability to read and understand graphs, scientific hypotheses, and research summaries. The ACT also tests more advanced math concepts and includes some trigonometry.

Meanwhile, the SAT has a stronger emphasis on reading comprehension and vocabulary. The reading sections are much tougher than that of the ACT, and the questions are less straightforward. On many sections of the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you’re being asked before you can start solving the problem.


  1. Know your preferred test taking style.

On the ACT, you tackle English, Math, Reading and Science each in one big chunk, with the optional writing test at the end. On the SAT, you write the required essay at the beginning and then follow with Critical Reading, Math and Writing, all broken up into 10 sections. You do a little math, a little writing, a little critical reading, a little more math, and so forth.

If moving back and forth between different content areas with various breaks keeps you energized and refreshed, the SAT may be the test for you. However, if this system confuses and you would rather do one subject at a time, it is time to sign up for the ACT.


  1. Understand the scoring methods.

The SAT was designed so that random guessing hurts your overall score. Each right answer adds one point while each wrong answer subtracts one-fourth of a point. Guessing on questions you do not know instead of leaving them blank can decrease your score significantly.

The ACT has no guessing penalty, because it is scored by adding all of your correct answers. There are no deductions for wrong answers, so it is actually best to fill in a bubble for every question you are not sure of.

This difference does not make one test easier or harder than the other, but some students find the guessing penalty and test-taking strategies of the SAT stressful.


  1. Don’t base your decision off of your friends or family.

Just because everyone at school is taking the SAT next month does not mean you have to join them. Just because your older sister scored a perfect 36 on her ACT two years ago does not mean you will too. You are your own individual with your own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Research each assessment, do some practice problems, and then decide.


  1. If you still can’t decide, take both.

When in doubt, sign up for both the SAT and the ACT. Sit through both tests and figure out your preference. It never hurts to do the extra work and simply pick your highest score.