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Should My Child Take The SAT or the ACT?

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Should my child take the SAT or the ACT?”  The classic “SAT versus ACT” question is probably the top question I receive from parents and students alike; after all, before enrolling one’s child in a SAT prep course or an ACT prep course, it would be wise to determine upfront which test should be taken.   There are a series of questions I receive that all revolve around this central concept, such as:

Is the SAT or ACT easier?

What are the pros and cons of ACT vs. SAT?

Do colleges prefer the ACT or SAT?

The flood of questions is seemingly endless….

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To properly answer the “ACT or SAT” question, we must first ask a series of more fundamental questions, beginning with this:

What are the differences between the SAT and ACT?

SAT and ACT Difference

Why must this question be addressed?  Because understanding the true differences between the tests helps one understand the order in which the tests should be taken.

What are the differences? Well, there are a number of differences between the SAT and ACT, including (but not limited to):

  • There is an ACT Science Test while the SAT does not have a science test.
  • The ACT math content goes much further than the SAT math content does.
  • Informational texts (i.e. graphs, charts, and tables) are paired with the passages found on the SAT Reading Test as well as the SAT Writing and Language Test while those informational pieces are not present on the ACT English Test or the ACT Reading Test.

While these differences are important, there’s a much, MUCH more important difference, which is:

TIME PER QUESTION.

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Yes, the aforementioned content differences would seem to be perhaps equally important to test timing, but there’s a caveat in this: the magnitude of difference between the SAT time per question and the ACT time per question is much greater than the other differences mentioned above.

Translation?

The other differences are present, but minor compared to the massive time per question difference between the two tests.

Allow me to explain…

SAT vs. ACT Time Comparison

At face value, each test gives students 3 hours worth of testing time (excluding the time for the optional essay).  So, it seems like if the time allotment is the same, then there really shouldn’t be a time difference between the two tests, right?

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The key difference lies in the number of questions on the ACT vs. SAT:

The SAT has a total of 154 questions on the test while the ACT has 215 total questions.

AND THEY GIVE THE SAME AMOUNT OF TIME TO TAKE EACH TEST.

See the problem here?

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Diving deeper, the SAT Reading Test has 5 passages with a total of 52 questions (10 questions for 3 passages and 11 questions for the other 2).  The ACT Reading Test, on the other hand, has 4 passages and 40 questions (10 questions per passage).  On both tests, the passages are roughly similar in length, and the types of reading material on each test are basically the same.  So, all things considered, students should perform the same on each test, right?

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The key difference is time per question: 

The SAT Reading Test gives 65 minutes for students to complete the test while the ACT Reading Test gives a meager 35 minutes.

SAT Reading Test: 1:15 per question

ACT Reading Test: 52.5 seconds per question

So, if you’re taking the SAT Reading Test and the passage in front of you has 10 questions, then you will have 12:30 to complete the questions.

On the ACT Reading Test, for the same exact passage (same length, style of writing, etc.), you will have 8:45 to complete the questions.

SAT: 12:30 vs. ACT: 8:45

This is where my “Southern” comes out….

Y’ALL! 8:45 seconds is absurdly short.  It’s unquestionably an unreasonably short amount of time.

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This is my biggest gripe about the ACT.  There are zero valid reasons why the ACT cannot give students more time on the Reading Test.  Every time I’m taking a timed ACT Reading Test, I sprint from the very start and sustain that level of sprint for the full-time allotment.  Usually, time expires as I am marking my last answer.  Reminder: I am a certified English teacher and I am a SAT prep teacher… and I barely finish the ACT Reading Test.

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The point is this: if I have a hard time finishing the ACT Reading Test, then imagine how the test treats the average student.  

In all of my years of taking the ACT or administering the ACT as a teacher, I can tell you that it is quite normal for half of the students in the testing room to not even make it to the last reading passage.  In my test prep classes, I routinely see many new students (the students who have been in my classes know better) take 12 – 15 minutes on the ACT’s first reading passage (which is an excerpt from literature), then they spend about 10 minutes on the second passage and another 10 minutes on the third passage (the second and third passages tend to move more quickly than the first one).  

Doing the math… 15 + 10 + 10 = 35.

That’s it.  The full 35 minutes have been used and there’s no time left for the last passage.  

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It happens every time the test is given: when the test proctor announces “5 minutes remaining” to the room, the air instantly turns to pure panic and tension.  Even the “all-honors classes” type of student who usually excels on standardized tests is blind-sided by the lack of time on the ACT. 

As a SAT prep teacher who works with students every day on this test, I can assure you that these time management issues are much less of a problem on the SAT.  Efficiency on the SAT is important, but my entire SAT test prep curriculum is not completely centered around time management like it is when I’m helping students with the ACT. 

With the SAT, my overall message is this: “Word hard, keep it moving.”

With the SAT, my overall message is this: “EVERY. SECOND. COUNTS.”

For an analogy, when I take the SAT, it feels like a jog while taking the ACT feels like an all-out sprint.

So, here’s the main point:

ACT time management is much more challenging than SAT time management.

Which leads me back to our original question, “Should my child take the SAT or ACT?”

Alas, here’s my answer: 

Take the SAT and, if time management is NOT an issue on that test, then take the ACT.

Here’s a conversation that happens all the time:

Random student who enters my office: “Hey, are you Mr. Anderson?”

Me: “Yes, but not nearly as cool as the one in the Matrix.”

Student: “What?”

Me; “Nevermind.  What’s up?” (that joke has really fallen flat in the past few years)

Student: “I’m taking the ACT next month and I heard you’re a great SAT prep teacher and you really helped some of my friends.”

Me: “Well, I’m happy to hear that’s what you heard, and I’ll gladly help you.  First, let me ask you, have you tried taking the SAT?”

Student: “Yes, I’ve taken it twice and it was awful.  So, my counselor suggested I take the ACT because some students do better on the ACT than the SAT.”

Me: “Yeah, that’s true, some students do better on the ACT than the SAT.  Let me ask you this, ‘what made the SAT so difficult?  What was the problem?’”

Student: “Man, I just kept running out of time.  Like, big time.”

Me:

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Student: “What?”

Me: “And someone told you to take the ACT?”

Student: “Yes, because some students do better on it.”

At this point, I debate whether or not I should be the one to break the bad news to the student.  Ultimately, I always decide that it would be cruel to let the student figure out the tough truth on his/her own; so, I tell the truth and we make a plan to begin furiously working on time management strategies.

Here’s the heart of the matter:

Some students do better on the ACT; however, students who have time management issues NEVER do better on the ACT than the SAT.

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Seriously: so many students take the SAT and perform poorly due to time management issues, and then they are advised to take the ACT.  This only makes the problem worse.  Counselors need to ask their students “WHY did you do so poorly on the SAT?” before advising their kids to take the ACT.  

And now, I hope you understand why I urge students to take the SAT before the ACT.  For another analogy, it’s the equivalent of trying to run a mile in 9 minutes before trying to run a mile in 7 minutes.  It’s intuitive and obvious how the progression should unfold if you know this about time per question on each test.

Honestly, it’s my experience that about 80% of students have no problem with time on the SAT.  I’m perfectly fine with those students taking the ACT because, yes, some students do better on the ACT than the SAT.  The ACT Science Test, like the ACT Reading Test, is absurdly short on time, but some students can finish in that short amount of time and do excel on those science questions.  Given that, they may do better on the ACT than the SAT.

Additionally, students who excel at Geometry and have completed Precalculus can certainly have a great day on the ACT Math Test, which has plenty of questions relating to those subjects (the SAT Math Test is very light on both of those subjects). 

So, there are opportunities for students to perform better on the ACT than the SAT, but it must be asserted, yet again, that the time allotment on the ACT Math Test is much shorter than time given for the SAT Math Test.  

ACT Math Test: 60 questions, 60 minutes

SAT Math Tests (No Calculator and Calculator): 58 questions, 75 minutes

Yes, the SAT Math Test has fewer questions and gives more total time to complete them. 

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So, folks, to put a final answer on the “Should my child take the SAT or the ACT?” question, my advice is this:

  1. Take the SAT first.
  2. If time is not an issue on that test, then take the ACT because some students do perform better on that test.
  3. If time is an issue, then avoid the ACT like the plague and work to improve the SAT test performance.
  4. If your child’s performance on the SAT improves and time is no longer an issue, then have him/her try the ACT.  

A quick note about the above-mentioned point #3: Many think that a student naturally improves over time from one SAT test to the next.  Let me assure you that is not at all the case.  Test familiarity does lead to some minimal improvement, but mastering the content, be it through securing a great SAT prep teacher <clears throat>, taking a SAT prep course or working SAT practice problems out of a book, is essential to seeing genuine improvement. 
To learn how to obtain genuine SAT test improvement, be sure to read my next article titled, “Does a Student’s SAT Score Naturally Improve over Time?”

About the Author

Since his youngest years, Tim Anderson been preparing to help his students with the SAT. When he was in high school, a SAT competition was formed in his home state of South Carolina, and Tim won the state championship. As a certified public school teacher, Tim taught the SAT elective class at his high school, which grew from one class of 15 students each semester to 4 classes with over a hundred students each semester and a lengthy wait-list (getting great results has a way of doing that).

As an independent teacher for the past few years, Tim has helped thousands of students at over 50 schools earn the SAT score they want for college admissions and scholarships. Tim’s philosophy of teaching is this: people love to learn, as long as it is entertaining. In class, Tim shares his SAT expertise with a sense of humor and energy that is simply unrivaled. 

For more information about Tim’s classes, visit www.SATPrepTeacher.com.  

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