Morrill Prep Online To Be Or Not To Be ACT vs. SAT That Is The Question

SAT Requirements: Critical Reading 670-770, Math 740-800, Writing 680-770

ACT Composite is 32-35

BEFORE THE SPRING of 2005 this was an unusual question for me to hear from parents or students. Historically if you lived on either coast that was SAT territory. If you lived in the Midwest that was ACT territory and the South was a combination of the two. I noticed a shift when the SAT was changed in March of 2005. I believe the people at the ACT saw a business opportunity to exploit the doubt some parents and school personnel had concerning the "new SAT". Since that time an ever increasing amount of my private, online students, College Confidential students and parents ask me SAT, ACT or both?

The numbers verify my experience. In 2012 the number of U.S. students taking the ACT outnumbered those who took the SAT for the first time. In 2014 1,845,787 students took the ACT and 1,672,395 took the SAT. in the same year more than 300,000 international students took the SAT. The number of SAT test takers has increased on a yearly basis so I believe the ACT growth has been primarily a function of those students who now take both tests. I spent several months in Michigan this past summer doing research for my ACT book and I did not hear the same level of conflict with those Midwestern parents and students as I hear from my students in the East coast. In the Midwest it appeared to me that the emphasis is still on the ACT. Nearly all my parents and students in Pennsylvania ask me about the value of both tests. Colleges state that typically they accept either test- that appears to be the case.

I often get asked which test is easier. My answer is for nearly all students they are both hard as hell. Both tests are mentally, emotionally, and physically grueling. To score well takes effort, dedication, motivation, planning, and will on either test. Again I think the numbers back me up. In 2014 the average SAT score was 1497- Critical Reading 497, Math 513, and Writing 487. The average composite ACT score in 2014 was 21- English 20.3, Math 20.9, Reading 21.3, and Science 20.8. If you compare 1497 and 21 they are virtually the same score within the respective tests. The SAT maximum score is 2400 and the ACT top score is 36.

Having worked with many students who take both the SAT and ACT - their feedback is neither test is easy.

Conventional wisdom suggests the ACT is more of an achievement test- more straightforward, school based, and curriculum sensitive. The SAT on the other hand is more of an aptitude test- measures potential, reasoning skills, and depth of vocabulary. Frankly if I was a typical 16-17 year old and read that I would go HUH!! We need to investigate both the actual differences between the tests and how students respond to the tests in order to make a mildly informed call as to which test to take.

The SAT is 3:45 minutes long. There 3 reading sections, 3 math sections, and 2 writing sections plus an essay. There is section that is experimental- doesn't count toward your score- and can be in any of the sections. Seven of the sections are 25 minutes long, 2 are 20 minutes, and 1 is 10 minutes. There are 67 critical reading questions, 54 math questions, and 49 writing questions plus the essay. The critical reading area is typically divided into 2 sections of 24 questions and a section of 19 questions. The writing area has 1 section of 35 and another section of 14 questions. The math component has a section of 20 questions, 1 of 18, and a section of 16 questions. The order of the sections vary from test to test. You don't answer all the reading questions at one time and all the math questions at one time, etc. The Sat is scored +1 for correct, - 1/4 for wrong, and 0 for a blank.

My interactive SAT Playbooks- Critical Reading Parts 1&2and Writing found on the ibook store show in tremendous detail the map to SAT success. The ACT Playbooks are being written now- we'll keep you updated.

The ACT with the essay is 3:25 minutes long. The ACT tells you it is optional but I have never had a student not write the essay. There are sections of english, math, reading ,science, and the 30 minute essay. The english section is 45 minutes long with 75 questions. The math section has 60 questions with a 60 minute limit. The reading and science sections are 35 minutes long with 40 questions in each section. The order of the sections never vary: english, math, reading, science reasoning, and essay. Unlike the SAT where you don't answer all of a categories questions at the same time; on the ACT you complete each category all at one time. The Act is scored +1 for correct and like most school tests a blank and a wrong answer have the same weight.

Now that we have covered some basic territory the question remains which test is suited for me?

I will answer that question based on tens of thousands of coaching hours directly with students plus one who has written SAT books and is writing an ACT book.

Critical Reading(SAT)/ Reading9ACT).

A. There are 19 sentence completions on the SAT, none on the ACT. Sentence completions directly relate to your vocabulary. If you have a strong vocabulary you might lean toward the SAT.

B. Both tests have 4 passages to read and the categories are the same- fiction, natural science, social science, and humanities. In the SAT the questions are arranged in chronological order, not so for the ACT. If you like to skip around the section the ACT is for you. If you think in an orderly fashion the SAT maybe better for you.

C. The majority of the SAT reading questions have a line reference attached so you don't have to search for the answer location. Many of the ACT questions have what are called lead words but not direct line references so you have to hunt for the answer location. From my point of view this is a huge distinction especially because of time pressure.

D. Because all the reading is in one section on the ACT you can handle the passages in order from most like to least like. You don't have to read the passages in the order in which they are presented but in an order that suits you. If done properly this can be a major assist for a test taker.


A. The major difference is that there is no trigonometry on the SAT but there is on the ACT.

Writing(SAT)/ English(ACT)

A. There is a stronger emphasis on grammar on the ACT merely due to the amount of questions you must answer- 75 vs. 49 on the SAT.

B. The ACT emphasizes punctuation , style, and structure. The SAT focuses more on fundamentals like subject-verb agreement.

C. The ACT has 5 passages with 15 questions per passage. For me it feels like I am editing an essay. The SAT questions are all distinct from one another. Personally I like the flow of the ACT format. Plus most students are used to editing their own work so they may have a comfort factor in the ACT format.

Science(ACT only)

A. There is no science on the SAT only the ACT.

B. I don't think of the section as science but more like data interpretation, analyzing charts, and graphs. If you like data analysis and are good with charts and graphs the ACT is advantageous for you. You don't have to be in AP bio, chemistry, or physics to do well here.

Ultimately students have their own preferences.

1. There is more strategy in attacking the SAT in my opinion. What that means for students is that I can make them stronger test takers by helping them understand the HOW of taking the test. The ACT indeed maybe more straightforward. The use of the blank in the SAT I believe is a major plus if used correctly.

2. Every student I have worked with felt there is more time pressure on the ACT than SAT. How quickly can you work under pressure? How anxious do you get with time stress? Can you make stress work to your advantage?

3. There is a big difference between alternating sections like the SAT and handling all the categories at one time. Some students need the variety others prefer to find a rhythm and deal with categories one by one.

4. In the SAT there 5 answer choices per question. In the ACT there are 5 answer choices in the math section. In the english, reading, and science sections there are 4 choices per question.

5. When a student takes multiple SAT tests, colleges see the results of all the tests. Many schools allow a student to "superscore"- that is take the best score from any of the tests and use the highest score to present to the college. At this point the ACT does not superstore but you only present your highest composite test score. If you took the test 3 times the school only sees the 1 test you used in your application.

Some students may do significantly better in one test over the other. In my experience the scores tend to correlate rather closely. I strongly feel that if you take both tests that you focus on one test then switch gears and attack the other test. I find the skills you learn for the SAT, again you can find SAT Playbooks Critical Reading Parts 1&2 and writing on ibooks, are transferable directly to the ACT.

There is no magic bullet for success. Determination, effort, drive, practice, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to listen are keys to success on either test. I find both are challenging and difficult for most test takers. Like an athlete who wants to succeed in a district playoff game, an actor who wants to win a role for a school production, or a musician performing a solo in a recital to succeed in the SAT or ACT game you need to act with a desire and mindset that allows you to perform confidently under stressful conditions. Good Luck!!

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