SAT vs. ACT: Five Steps to Help You Pick a Test

SAT vs. ACT: Five Steps to Help You Pick a Test

Our guest blogger Ted Dorsey received a perfect score on the PSAT, ACT, and SAT. He is founder of Tutor Ted and author of numerous ACT and SAT test prep books.

Check out his free ACT intro course here and his comprehensive online ACT prep course here, which includes over eight hours of video lessons and over a hundred sample questions, including all of the knowledge and strategies Ted shares with his private tutoring students in Los Angeles.

How should you choose between the SAT and ACT today?

Ah, 2016—it was such an easy year to answer this question! Back in the good ol’ days of 2016, things were simpler. Unless you were freakin’ crazy, you took the ACT. For good reason! ACT had a clearly established test format and score curve, 10x as many practice tests, and proven methods to improve scores. Game, set, match.

Well, it ain’t 2016 anymore. And a few factors have emerged that have changed the calculus of choosing between SAT and ACT. Here’s what ’s new:

  • ACT has made changes to the format of its test*—at times without any advanced warning.
  • Once the January 2017 test is available, SAT will have doubled the number of available official practice tests. That number of tests available is still just eight, so we’re well short of the 60+ available practice ACTs. But it’s progress.
  • All the recent ACT prep has caused ACT scores to become really, really good.

That last one is a double-edged sword. At first read, you might think, “I am DEFINITELY going to take the ACT if I can get to a 33 or better with test prep!” If that’s true—which it is for a growing number of students**—you could land yourself an exceptionally high ACT score through some thoughtful prep. And that’s great news! But here is the other edge of this particular double-edged sword: if everyone is getting a 33+ on the ACT, is your score really so exceptional?

Let me put it this way: the point of getting a high score on these tests is to differentiate yourself from other college applicants. Now suppose you score a 33 or a 34 on the ACT. That’s an outstanding score! But if it only indicates that you are in a substantial pack of highly qualified applicants, has it helped get you in to college?

That question has led to the idea of taking the SAT as a way of differentiating yourself at the top of the curve. The idea is that if you can get a killer score on the SAT, it may be more impressive than if you get a killer score on the ACT. 

So, let’s get back to the original question: how should you choose between the ACT and the SAT? Here are the five steps I would recommend to make your decision. 

#1: Take a practice ACT (like this one) in October of junior year—which is also when you’ll take the PSAT.

#2: Ask yourself whether you preferred the format of one test or the other.

#3: Compare the scores of those two tests using this website. Add 80 points to your PSAT score to convert it to an SAT score.

#4: Use those last two factors to make a decision. In the case of a tie, choose the ACT. It’s still easier to improve your score on that test than the SAT.

#5: If you’re a student already scoring in the 99+ percentile on these early tests, strongly consider prepping for the SAT. A great SAT score will help you differentiate yourself from the field of qualified students.

Last thing: your choice of ACT or SAT is not a permanent one. You have the power to change your mind whenever you want. We strongly recommend you prep for one test at a time, but you can always then prep for the other test too. Whatever decision you make, be sure to prep enough that you feel comfortable and ready when you open the test on the big day.

* Including more advanced content on the Math Test, such as statistics and probability, paired passages on the Reading Test, and, most recently, changing the parameters of the Writing Test such that students do not need to respond to all three given perspectives.

** I don’t have the data for all ACT-takers across the country, but it used to be that 1% of students earned a 33 or better on the composite score. In the past two years, at least 50% of our students have. We probably have a disproportionate number of smart students, but I think it’s also likely that the scoring standard at the high end of the ACT curve is still based on performance standards rather than a new percentile curve. Or the current students are being judged on an old percentile curve. Either way, a LOT of students are getting exceptionally high ACT scores. 

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Ted Dorsey—aka Tutor Ted—has been prepping students for SAT and ACT since 2000. A graduate of Princeton, he earned perfect scores on the ACT, old SAT, old-old SAT, PSAT, and SAT Subject Tests in Literature and Math Level 2. He scored a 1590 on his first go at the new SAT and will back for revenge in May of 2017. He is the founder of Tutor Ted, Inc., a test prep group that offers outstanding private tutoring, online test prep classes, and books. You can reach him at contact@tutorted.com. 

Check out his new comprehensive ACT course here.


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