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SAT vs ACT : Which is right for you?

by Originally Published in The Hindustan Times Education Supplement

Should I take the SAT or the ACT? I hear this question regularly. The honest truth: It does not matter. Colleges view both test equally. Most US colleges require either the SAT I or the ACT with writing.

But how do you know which test is right for you? Try this exercise: without preparation, simulate the testing conditions and take each test in its entirety (i.e., sit locked in a room for the requisite time and take the full exam uninterrupted and unaided). While your scores are unlikely to be high and they may be in the same range on both tests, you will get a sense of which exam best suits your test taking style. Once you have decided whether you prefer the ACT or the SAT, start preparing for that test and forget about the other one.

In India students and schools are sometimes less aware of the ACT option than the SAT. But given the ACT’s emphasis on high school classwork versus aptitude, it is gaining popularity. This is because the ACT is more of an achievement test – it tests what you have learned in school, not just your aptitude for college-level coursework. Further, the ACT includes a science section, which often appeals to Indian students who have excelled in a rigorous science curriculum. Since colleges are indifferent about which test is used, you should pick the one that suits you.

Other parameters to take into consideration when deciding between the tests (at least, with the current SAT and ACT):

·         The ACT includes trigonometry but the SAT emphasises story problems and creative application of concepts

·         The ACT emphasises grammar and syntax while the SAT focuses on comprehension and vocabulary

·         Both tests require a solid foundation in geometry and algebra

What are the differences between the SAT and the ACT?



SAT (for test dates through March 2016)

SAT (for test dates beginning approximately April 2016)

What they Measure An achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school An aptitude test, testing reasoning and verbal abilities. Not as closely linked to curriculum. An aptitude test, testing reasoning and verbal abilities
Required Components 5 components: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test 3 components: Critical Reasoning, Mathematics, and a required Writing Test. 2 components: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing;  and Mathematics
Writing Test Optional but recommended Mandatory Optional
Time Allotted 3.5 hours (without Writing)

4 hours (with Writing)

3 hours, 45 minutes 3 hours with 50 minutes for Essay
Scoring Parameters Based on the number of correct answers with no penalty for guessing Includes penalties for guessing incorrectly. That is, they take off for wrong answers No penalty for guessing.
Scoring Values 36 points total 2400 points total 1600 points total (for 2 required components)
When is it Offered in India? February, April, June, October and December. January, May, June, October, November and December January, May, June, October, November and December

Also note that many colleges will accept the ACT with Writing in lieu of both the SAT I and SAT Subject Tests. So, that means students may be able to better streamline testing schedules in an already hectic 11th and 12thstandard calendar. But a few selective colleges, such as Dartmouth require subject tests no matter if you’ve taken the SAT or the ACT so check your college’s requirements.  

Most US colleges in the US will ‘superscore’ your SAT results – that is, they take the highest score for each section from any test date. So, if, you did well on Math and Writing in your first sitting but your Critical Reading is better in your second sitting, the college will look at your highest scores in each section across those two sittings. Note, most colleges will ask you send all your scores even if they superscore. Keep that in mind as you plan your testing strategy. Note, the ACT does not offer a superscoring option.

Other colleges do not superscore, instead they use the highest test score from a single date. So if on the January SAT you scored 2140 and in June you scored 2100, the college will use the January score, even though the June score is more recent and even if some parts of the June score are higher than their counterparts in January.  The ACT is only evaluated on a highest test score by date basis.


So there are significant differences between the ACT and the SAT, but the most important thing to remember is that neither is preferred by US colleges. Both are perceived equally and the choice is yours. My best piece of advice, however is to decide on a test and move on. Do not keep alternating between tests to get a better score. This rarely works and it is a distraction from the demands of school and applications. Trust your instincts and do your best.


The above is an excerpt from: Acing Admissions – The Indian Student’s Comprehensive Guide to US College Applications, by Kimberly Dixit and Kavita Mehta to be published by HarperCollins in mid-2015

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