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Standardized testing is an important part of the college application process, and it’s likely to remain that way. While you may have heard about a handful of colleges adopting testing-optional admissions policies, as we’ve covered in our post The Reality of the Testing-Optional Trend, the majority of colleges still require and take into consideration your standardized test scores.

 

The two options available to meet this basic standarized testing requirement are, of course, the SAT and the ACT. When you’re just getting started on college planning, it can be hard to tell how these tests differ, especially since so many colleges treat them interchangeably. How can you decide which test to take?

 

Actually, there’s another option—taking both the SAT and the ACT—and there are some definite benefits that come with choosing both. In this post, we’ll cover how taking both tests can help you build a stronger college admissions profile, with less extra work and preparation than you might think.

 

 

What’s The Difference Between the SAT and the ACT?

We’ve covered many of the differences between the ACT and the SAT in our post SAT vs ACT: Everything You Need to Know. The biggest difference between these two tests is that the SAT’s sections are Reading, Math, and Writing and Language, while the ACT’s sections are English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning. Both tests also have an optional Essay section, which some colleges require you to take and others don’t.

 

The traditional advice has been that the ACT is more concerned with your understanding of specific content, while the SAT is more about reasoning, logic, and problem-solving. However, both tests have been revamped many times, and in the most modern iterations of these tests, this dichotomy isn’t necessarily true; there are more commonalities in what the tests cover than there are differences. The newest versions of the test have also removed another difference, namely the old SAT’s penalty for wrong answers, which used to affect the SAT strategies authorities recommended for students.

 

Even the ACT’s unique Science Reasoning section doesn’t require you to have learned specific science facts. Rather, it tests the type of reasoning skills that are used in the practice of science, and uses scientific contexts to test your problem-solving abilities. The content is somewhat different from that of the SAT, but both address similar skills. 

 

While the ACT and SAT are generally pretty similar in what they test, they sometimes asks different types of questions or have different requirements for their answers. For example, the ACT budgets less time per question than the ACT. Some of the SAT math questions must be answered without a calculator, while a calculator may be used on all of the ACT math questions. The optional essay sections for each test ask for slightly different approaches.

 

There are many other small differences between the SAT and the ACT in terms of content, format, timing, and other features—in fact, there are too many to list here. Check out these additional posts from the CollegeVine blog for more detailed information on the differences between these two tests.

 

 

 

Is One Test Better Than The Other?

Neither the ACT nor the SAT is a “better” test— they’re just different. Both tests are widely used, well-respected ways of assessing academic ability and college potential. Historically, the SAT has been more popular in the  Northeastern US, while the ACT has been more popular in the Midwest, but at present, the majority of colleges in this country will accept either test as part of their application requirements.

 

In general, colleges that accept both the ACT and the SAT don’t prefer either test over the other. Neither test will give you a particular advantage in the college application process, and colleges will assess your application based on all the scores you choose to send them, no matter what combination of tests you took. How well you score is more important than which test(s) you take. 

 

You may encounter some small differences in the ways different colleges deal with your SAT and SAT scores. For instance, some colleges allow you to substitute your ACT scores for the combination of SAT and SAT II Subject Test scores, allowing you to take fewer tests overall. It’s always essential to read the individual application instructions for each and every college where you apply to make sure that your requirements are met.

 

You may also find that particular merit-based scholarship programs require scores from either the ACT or the SAT and won’t allow you to substitute one for the other. The classic example, of course, is the National Merit Scholarship Program, which is based upon participants’ PSAT and SAT scores. Each scholarship program has its own rules and requirements, so whenever you apply for a scholarship, you’ll need to research its specific terms.

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The Benefits of Taking Both the SAT and the ACT

As we’ve noted, there are some differences between the SAT and the ACT. These differences may sometimes mean that one test plays more to your strengths than the other  test, allowing you to earn a comparatively higher score. However, this may not be obvious until you actually take the tests and get your scores back, so it’s still a good idea to take both and find out.

 

Most importantly, taking more tests means getting more scores back, and taking different tests gives you opportunities to figure out which test works better for you. All of this translates into an improved chance of getting your best possible scores—and the better your top scores, no matter which tests they came from, the better your chances of getting admitted to the college of your choice.

 

College admissions officers may also like to see that you’ve taken both the SAT and the ACT. In general, the more information you provide to admissions officers to support your application, the better. Seeing that you’ve achieved high scores not only on one standardized test, but also on the other, will help to reinforce your image as a dedicated and high-achieving student.

 

There are many aspects of the college admissions process that you as an applicant can’t control. Your background, the resources you have access to, and the options available at your high school likely aren’t up to you. With low acceptance rates getting lower every year, not everyone can get into the college of their choice, and even very strong applicants may be rejected. Part of the college application process is accepting this uncertainty.

 

One thing you can control, however, is which standardized tests you take, and how much energy you put into preparing for them. It’s well-established that preparation makes a big difference when it comes to standardized tests. Choosing to take both tests gives you even more chances to put your best effort into this important part of the process.

 

 

Is Taking Both Tests Too Much Work?

There are clearly benefits to taking both the SAT and ACT, but you may be wondering whether it’s actually worth it to add another major standardized test to your college preparation schedule. Your junior and senior years of high school will already be busy, and preparing for and taking both tests might seem like an unnecessary burden.

 

Don’t worry! There’s a good reason why many college applicants choose to take both tests. For most students, this is a situation where the benefits outweigh the costs, and taking both tests may actually save you time and stress in the long run.

 

On the surface, it might appear that if you want to take both the SAT and the ACT, you’ll have to spend double the time on test prep. Fortunately, this isn’t actually true. There’s a lot of overlap regarding what these two tests cover, so much of your prep time will do double duty; you’ll just need to allocate some extra time to address the differences, learn each test’s format, and take practice tests.

 

Here’s the bottom line: taking both the ACT and the SAT will increase your test prep workload somewhat, but it’s well worth the time and effort. It improves your array of options so that you can find the test that works best for you, it gives you multiple chances to do your best or mitigate an “off” day, and it helps admissions committees get a better sense of you and your capabilities.

 

Even if you already know that one test suits you better than the other, it’s still worth it to take the other as a backup plan. The college application process is full of uncertainties; by giving yourself the best possible chance to get the best standardized test score you can get, you’ll be focusing your energy on an aspect of college admissions where it’s likely to reap rewards.

 

Now that you know you should take both the SAT and the ACT, it’s time to start on test prep. Preparation is essential when it comes to getting your best possible score on whichever standardized tests you take, and this preparation starts with getting to know these tests inside and out. For detailed posts about every aspect of standardized test content, format, and scoring, start with the CollegeVine blog’s Standardized Tests page.

 

Looking for some individualized help with your test prep? Our consultants can help you plan out your testing strategy, practice your approach, and ultimately improve your score. Check out CollegeVine’s Online SAT Tutoring Program for more information.

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Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.
Monikah Schuschu