03 Jan 2019

Which is Easier, the SAT or ACT?

Stressful as they may be, standardized tests are an important part of the college application process. Therefore, if you are an aspiring applicant, you have probably already begun pondering whether to take the SAT or the ACT. Both tests are accepted equivalently by universities, so there is no outright advantage. You understandably want to achieve the best score percentile possible, so you have probably already contemplated the following irresistible question: which test is easier? However, such a question cannot be determined objectively. Instead, you should be asking yourself the following question: which test will be easier for me?

In order to best answer this question, it is first important to first summarize the key differences between the two tests.

Includes a no calculator math section
Includes a science section
Includes grid-in free response questions on math sections
Is entirely multiple choice in math section
Math questions can be tricky but cover less content (mostly Algebra)
Math questions are fairly straightforward but cover a large amount of content (significant amounts of Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry)
Math formula sheet is provided
No math formula sheet is provided
Math accounts for half of score
Math accounts for one-fourth of score
More time per question
Less time per question
Reading questions inquire about evidence used to answer previous questions
No reading questions regarding direct quotes from evidence used
Essay (optional) requires analyzing the development of an argument in a provided writing sample
Essay (optional) requires developing a supported opinion on the given topic while contrasting provided perspectives


Now, let’s unpack all that.

1.  The SAT has a no calculator math section and the ACT has a science section. Therefore, if you are slow and often make errors when attempting mental math/simple calculations, the no calculator math section on the SAT might be an issue. On the other hand, the ACT’s science section requires the quick interpretation and analysis of graphs, figures, tables, and passages related to various scientific concepts, most of which you will have little background in. If this task proves to be particularly difficult for you, the ACT science section might bring down your score. The fact that the SAT and ACT have these two different sections is significant and could reasonably affect your choice of standardized test.
2. The SAT has grid-in free response questions on the math sections while the ACT has none. Hence, if you tend to get away with estimating on multiple choice math sections, this aspect of the SAT might cause some trouble. Grid-ins can be especially stressful when you are running out of time because you cannot resort to making educated guesses. Ideally though, you should get to the point where exactness is the goal rather than estimations. The stress of grid-in questions is definitely possible to overcome with practice, and therefore, this difference should not be a defining consideration for most test takers.
3. The math sections of both tests differ in content and straightforwardness. Both cover mostly algebra, but the ACT also covers substantial amounts of geometry and trigonometry. Therefore, if you struggle with geometry or have not yet taken a class in trigonometry, the ACT math section might be quite difficult. Although the SAT math section covers mostly algebra, its questions are often long and tricky, while ACT math questions tend to be more straightforward. Along with pure math, SAT math questions also involve a significant amount of reading comprehension and critical thinking. This task can be difficult for some students, even if they are proficient in algebra. Evidently, the difference in math content between the two tests has the potential to greatly affect your overall test percentile.
4. The SAT provides a math formula sheet, while the ACT does not. However, the formulas provided are mostly geometry formulas, and the SAT incorporates little geometry. Furthermore, these formulas can simply be memorized for the ACT. As you can see, this difference should not have a huge impact on which test you choose.
5. On the SAT, math accounts for half of your total score. Meanwhile, math only accounts for one-fourth of your total score on the ACT. Therefore, if you consistency struggle with both SAT and ACT math, you will likely achieve a higher overall ACT percentile. On the other hand, if math is your strong suit, you will likely achieve a higher SAT percentile. However, it is important to remember that the ACT has a science section in place of the SAT’s no calculator math section, so consider if it is more beneficial for you to have an extra math section or a science section. This difference in scoring can be consequential if you have a significant difference in ability between the math and science sections.
6. The ACT allows less time per question than the SAT. This characteristic can make the ACT problematic if you are a slow test taker, because you might not finish some of the sections. Consistently slow test takers might have a better chance on the SAT, where they are more likely to finish all of the questions. This difference in time allowance is very important to consider, since not finishing several sections could substantially lower your score.
7. There are a handful of questions in the SAT reading section that require you to select which quote from the passage best supports your answer to the previous question. Such questions can be frustrating, because if your answer to the previous question is wrong, your evidence selection will likely also be wrong. However, some students also report that such evidence-based question pairs force them to properly consider the merit of their previous answers. Students tend to have mixed opinions about these question pairs, but since such questions are limited in number, they should not be a defining consideration in which standardized test you choose.
8. The SAT and ACT optional essay prompts differ greatly. The SAT essay requires you to analyze how an argument is developed in a provided writing piece. This task is very similar to that of the rhetorical analysis essay required in the AP Language and Composition Exam; therefore, students who are taking/ have taken this course might benefit from their familiarity with analyzing arguments. The ACT essay, on the other hand, requires you to develop an argument on a given topic while examining the merit of several provided opinions. Your preference for analyzing the development of an argument or developing your own argument will determine which essay is best for you. However, most universities do not put a lot of weight on SAT and ACT essay scores, if they require them at all. Therefore, although this difference seems substantial, it should not usually be a huge deciding point.
As you can see, the SAT and ACT have a number of differences, some of which are more significant than others, and all of which need to be analyzed in the context of your particular skill set. Practicing each test is very important, because you might be surprised to discover that your strengths and weaknesses are different than you originally thought. Additionally, recognize that apparent weaknesses can always be improved upon, and can eventually even become strengths. You should pick your preferred standardized test with care, but know that you can always switch if things do not work out.
And remember, standardized tests are just one piece of the grand puzzle that is your college application. Do not lose track of the other parts of your story. Be thorough in your essays and activities, the elements of your application that convey who you are. Just try your hardest on your standardized tests, because when it comes down to it, that’s all you can really do.
By Bethany Gedzelman
Bethany is a current University of Chicago student who has experience tutoring both SAT and ACT prep. She took both tests three times and hopes to communicate to current college applicants what she wishes she had known beforehand.

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