ACT or SAT: Which Test Is Better?

ACT or SAT Which Test Is Better

I’m finalizing my ACT and SAT prep schedule for the coming school year and have debated a question that troubles families of juniors each year. ACT or SAT: which test is better?

Of course, I’m looking from the perspective of an instructor. Which test is more coachable? Which test will offer the most benefits to my students with the fewest drawbacks? Which test will allow my students to score more?

There isn’t a simple answer. Before I share my decision, lets look at some facts students and parents should consider when making their own evaluations.

Coke vs. Pepsi

I have often said that choosing between the SAT and ACT is like the choice between Coke and Pepsi.

Both drinks are colas. Both are manufactured by huge corporations intent on marketing their products worldwide. Often the choice comes down to personal preference or availability.

The ACT / SAT choice is no different. Both tests are multiple-choice exams for college admission. Both are produced by large corporations who promote their product to schools and consumers worldwide. Both the ACT and SAT are accepted at all colleges and universities with no preference given to either one.

Like the cola market, there have been some regional biases. I live in Texas, traditionally an SAT state. But don’t let old biases make you think one test is superior.

Often choice comes down to personal preference and sometime which test fits into a busy student’s schedule.

Similar Exams

From a distance the SAT and ACT appear very similar. Both include passage based reading and grammar questions and math problems. Each test now has an optional written essay that students take at the end of the exam. Students are not penalized for wrong answers on either test.

Both assessments are constructed to make it very challenging to earn top scores. Most test takers will find themselves somewhere in the middle of the pack with fewer students earning very high or very low marks.

The tests are so similar that they are interchangeable in the eyes of college admissions systems. All colleges and universities requiring standardized admissions tests will accept either the ACT or SAT.

Yes, you may see a school publish one set of admissions scores and not the other, but that is based on the data at hand, not an institutional preference. If 75% of students applying to Big U. submit SAT scores, Big U will publish the average SAT scores of its students and may not include ACT results due to a lack of data.

The main point is that colleges and universities don’t care. So students should focus on their preferred exam.

Key Differences

When you are choosing the best exam for something as important as college admission, little differences are important. Here is where the subtle differences between the SAT and ACT become significant.

The top differences my students identify:

1. Format & Structure

With the new SAT introduced in March 2016, there are fewer differences in the structure of the two exams. Both now have longer sections in which all questions of a certain type are tested in a single section.

Here’s the format and order of sections on the new SAT:

65 minutes      Reading passages (5 passages, 52 questions)

35 minutes      Writing passages (4 passages, 44 questions)

25 minutes      NO Calculator math (20 questions)

55 minutes      Math (38 questions)

Here’s the format and order of sections on the ACT:

45 minutes      English passages (5 passages, 75 questions)

60 minutes      Math (60 questions)

35 minutes      Reading passages (4 passages, 40 questions)

35 minutes      Science passages (7 passages, 40 questions)

Both exams are long and challenging.

One structural difference that stands out to me is the SAT’s passage-heavy first half. Too many students suffer from fatigue after doing 100 minutes of intense passage-based reading on the SAT. The order of the sections on the ACT, in contrast, offers a little relief as students switch from English (writing editing) to math to reading and finally to science.

2. Content Details

While on the surface the reading, writing, and math on these two tests is very similar, there are some content differences.

Writing / English

The new SAT writing looks almost exactly like ACT English. Both require students to edit the grammar and usage in paragraphs. The error types tested are similar, so students need a solid foundation in grammar, usage, and elements of good writing for either test.

Reading Passages

The SAT continues to test more college-bound vocabulary than the ACT. Instead of the old sentence completion SAT questions, the new test imbeds vocabulary words in the passages, questions, and answers. Students with exceptional vocabularies may prefer the SAT.

SAT reading seems to test a more analysis while ACT reading has more questions that test whether you can find the specific answer in the passage (a difference of finding versus thinking and processing.) Both tests truly come down to issues of speed for most students because the ability to read challenging material and pay attention to detail is harder when you are racing the clock.


Both exams test basic trig functions (SOH-CAH-TOA) as well as standard algebra and geometry concepts. Both have a distribution of easy, medium, and hard questions.

The SAT tests more advanced Algebra II concepts. Students who have successfully completed Algebra II may prefer that aspect of SAT math. However, the SAT math questions tend to be longer and include irrelevant details. While it is a valuable skill to identify which elements are necessary to solve a particular problem, some students, tired by the fatigue of reading for the first 100 minutes of the exam, may not do as well on this type of math test.

In contrast ACT problems require less reading and rarely include details unnecessary for the solution. One downside to ACT math is that no formulas are provided. Student must memorize equations for things like the circumference and area of a circle.

The content differences in math may make one exam more appealing than the other. For most students, the content is about the same.

3. No Calculator Math Section (and no multiple choice options)

This is a big enough issue that it deserves its own point.

SAT math is divided into two timed sections. On one section must be done WITHOUT the assistance of a calculator.

Showing my age, I’ll admit that the entire SAT had to be done without the use of a calculator when I was in school (just after the advent of electricity according to my children!) Personally, I’m not at a disadvantage on this new section because I’ve been in the habit of calculating things with paper and pencil for decades. Unfortunately, today’s students don’t have this experience.

Most students are encouraged to use a calculator from the time they enter Algebra I. Basic computation is not something they are comfortable with or good at. Yes, most students can do the math without a calculator, but they take longer and typically approach the section with trepidation.

Additionally, 22% of the SAT math questions require students to produce an answer that can be bubbled into a numerical grid. These questions cannot be solved with test taking strategies like plugging in the answers or picking numbers.

Between the 25-minute no calculator section and the math questions that do not have multiple choice answer, many students will prefer the math on the ACT.

4. Scoring

Students receive two scores on the SAT

  • Evidenced Based Reading and Writing
  • Math

While it is pretty common to add scores together, they are still viewed as two separate scores by colleges.

In contrast, students receive a single composite ACT score, which is the average of the scores earned on the four sections of the test. Because colleges see the average, students who struggle in one area have a chance to improve their overall score by earning more points in their stronger subjects.

There are cases in which the scoring methodology can make one test the clear choice.

Consider the student who is exceptional in reading and writing, but average in math.


Reading & Writing      800 (perfect score)

Math                           500


English                        36 (perfect score)

Math                           21

Reading                       36 (perfect score)

Science                        29 *

*Science on the ACT does not require calculations and in many ways is like reading, but with charts and graphs.

This student’s SAT total (1300) is the equivalent of a 27 on the ACT according to the score concordance table provided by College Board. However, this student earned a score of 31 on the ACT. One low section on the ACT is less detrimental because there are three other sections to help average out the total score.

More Coachable Exam

Part of my perspective is to find the exam that is more coachable. In other words, if you are going to spend any time and money on improving scores, which test favors your efforts?

Currently I find the most coachable section of all tests to be the ACT science section. With a few strategies and some practice, I can help students earn more points. In contrast, it is much harder to coach the type of reading analysis found on the SAT, particularly if a student hasn’t developed this type of thinking after years of high school work.

A major factor at this time is the amount of quality practice material—official practice exams from the test writers. College Board has released four practice SATs and one PSAT. That’s not a lot of material.

In contrast, ACT has a book with five practice tests and you can access previously released exams going back ten to twenty years. There is plenty of ACT material without having to use unofficial questions.

How to Decide

Ignore the old rumors that say one test is more like school or the other test is better for students applying to highly-selective universities.  These rumors are NOT true.

Often the difference comes down to personal preference. Here are some practical considerations to guide your decision:

  • Compare scores from previous or practice tests.  Make sure you are using NEW SAT scores not old ones. You can use this concordance table from College Board.
  • If you haven’t taken either test, obtain an official full-length practice test at no cost from your guidance counseling office at school or print them from the ACT and College Board
  • Does one test offer a better format?  Was the content of one test more familiar?
  • Consider test prep factors. Does one test / class better meet your schedule? Check for conflicts with school holidays, sports or extracurricular, and family activities.

Obviously you should focus on the test that lets you score higher. Unless your previous scores say otherwise, go with your gut.  Take the test that feels most comfortable to you.

My Choice

So which test is more coachable? Which test will offer the most benefits to my students with the fewest drawbacks? Which test will allow my students to score more?

My answer for the 2016-17 school year is the ACT. I’ve been an SAT fan for years, but there are a few key factors that have led me to favor the ACT:

  1. The amount of quality practice materials. 15 easily accessible ACTs far outweighs 5 SATs.
  2. Timely score results. This spring it took 10 weeks for students to receive SAT scores. This didn’t allow time to register and retake. In contrast, ACT scores are available online in 2 to 3 weeks—plenty of time to retest if needed.
  3. While the new SAT may feel easier to some students, the new scores are inflated and typically students have to earn an additional 100 points to compare with scores on the old SAT. Also, a majority of my tutoring students have found they can get better scores with the ACT.

I will continue to offer both SAT and ACT classes, but my schedule for the next year will favor the ACT.


What do you think? Leave comments below.


Posted in ACT Success, SAT Success, Testing | Leave a comment

7 Reasons to Attend a Community College


In an era of highly competitive university admissions, rising student debt concerns, and questions on the financial return on a college education, more students are considering community colleges.

I recently met a Harvard grad that started out at a community college and cites that experience as a major reason she was able to get into and succeed at an Ivy League school. So don’t think community colleges will limit your options; they may help expand them.

Community colleges can offer academic, financial, and social benefits and prepare students to improve their job prospects or complete their degrees at well-known and prestigious universities.

Here are some reasons to consider community colleges:

1. Lower Tuition

Community college classes cost less than the corresponding course at a state university or private college. In many cases, the community college class costs 30-50% of what the same class would cost elsewhere and the fees associated with attending a community college are lower. Most students can complete two years of courses at their local community college for less than the cost of one year’s tuition at a four-year college.

2. Personalized Instruction

Community colleges offer smaller classes, often with fewer than 40 students, and instructors who are committed to teaching. This type of academic environment provides more personalized instruction and may help students successfully navigate the transition from high school academics to college-level work.

3. Chance to Improve Credentials

Community colleges offer students multiple opportunities to improve their education and enhance their academic credentials. Taking classes at a community college may allow a student who had lower grades or test score in high school improve his or her academic credential prior to transferring to another institution.

Some students choose community colleges because they can complete a certificate program or Associate’s degree which will help them get a job or earn a promotion in their current field.

Other students attend community colleges as part of a long-term plan to earn a Bachelor’s degree from a four-year university. Some state universities make and effort to recruit top transfer students from state community colleges. UVA and UCLA actively accept students who began at community colleges.

4. Credits Transfer

Many states have articulation agreements between their community colleges and four-year institutions. These transfer agreements allow students to take approved community college courses that satisfy core requirements at the university level. After successfully completing their first two years at the community college level, students qualify to enter a state university to complete their degree. Agreements vary by state, so students should ask about the policies in their state.

However, not all community college classes are guaranteed to transfer. Don’t assume that any English, math, or history class will satisfy the graduation requirements at four-year schools. Also, most credit transfer agreements are between state universities and the community colleges in that particular state; if you transfer to a private college or out of state university, your community college credits are not guaranteed to transfer.

5. Extensive Support Services

Students will find community colleges offer a wide array of services aimed at increasing student success. These services may include: English as a second language programs; study skills classes; remedial help in math, reading, and writing; counseling services; academic advising; peer tutoring; and application counseling.

Students who struggled in high school may find more help by starting at a community college rather than a university. Students who were successful in high school, but never really learned how to study can benefit from the personalized support services at community colleges.

6. Opportunity to Explore Academic Programs

Because tuition is less expensive, classes are more personalized, and support services are readily available, community colleges may be an ideal place for the undecided student to explore a variety of academic programs. Not sure about engineering, biology, business management, or economics? Students can take a semester or year to explore potential majors before committing to a program or school.

7. Opportunity to Live at Home

Many community college students live at home, so the student who chooses to do so won’t be out of place among his or her peers. Many students choose live at home in order to save money, but others do so for social reasons. Some students, particularly those who graduated from high school at a young age, benefit from the opportunity to mature at home while taking classes.

Community colleges are no longer viewed as a school of last resort for those who couldn’t gain admission to a university. Many students have seen the advantage in taking classes, earning degrees, and saving money by attending a community college. Whether looking for a financial alternative, better learning environment, opportunity to explore different subjects, or close to home school, students who elect to attend community colleges will find many benefits.

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Extracurricular Activities: What Do Colleges Want?

extracurricular activities

Many colleges and universities consider an applicant’s extracurricular activities when making admissions decisions. What activities count? What are colleges looking for?

Colleges are looking for quality participation over quantity. Students can see this reflected on applications which ask students to list how many years they have participated in a particular activity and the hours per week and weeks per year spent. It is better for a student to consistently dedicate time to a select number of activities than to join dozens of groups and spend little time with any.

Summer is a great time to update your list of extracurricular activities and consider how you will spend your free time over the next year. Here are common categories for extracurricular participation.

School Clubs and Sports

The most commonly listed extracurricular activities are school based clubs and sports. The organizations can vary from school to school, but colleges are familiar with National Honor Society, soccer, debate, newspaper, French club, math team, baseball, cheerleading, theater, spirit club, and other school-based organizations. While many of these activities are generally recognized, students should take time to explain their participation. Do not assume colleges will be familiar with every group or organization.

Non-School Based Groups

Many students participate in organized programs not affiliated with their high schools. Some of the most common include Boy and Girl Scouts, club sports teams, and religious youth groups. Colleges are interested in knowing about all extracurricular activities, not just those that are school-based, so students participating in these types of groups should list them on applications.

Community Service

Students often participate in community service as part of their other clubs or organizations, but others may seek out separate volunteer opportunities. There is no required amount of community service for college admission, but students should list any outside service they have completed. Sometimes community service allows students an opportunity to work for a cause they believe in, to further leadership opportunities, or to develop social or academic skills while helping others.


Colleges want to know how students spend their time outside of school and often work is part of it. Jobs may include occasional babysitting, summer employment, or even unpaid internships. Colleges understand that work is one way in which applicants gain experience, demonstrate leadership, and develop talents. Colleges are not looking for big-name jobs or prestigious work experience. They want to know what a student has done, so students should not hesitate to list work at the local fast-food restaurant or a summer bagging groceries; all work counts.

All Other Experiences

A majority of extracurricular activities fall into the three categories above, but colleges are interested in learning about any activities that help develop a students talents, interests, and strengths. Some students pursue other experiences that are not part of an organized group and are not volunteer experiences; if these activities are influential and significant, colleges want to know about them. The student who spent all summer restoring and rebuilding a classic car should mention it. So should the avid reader, triathlete, wood working enthusiast, robotics or computer builder, or any other active hobbyist.

Colleges and universities are interested in learning how students spend their time when not in class. They are looking to see what activities have shaped a student’s experience, so there are no right or wrong answers. (You read that correctly—there is NO “right” activity to impress colleges.)

Ideally students will participate in extracurricular activities that showcase their talents, interests, and abilities. Colleges understand that not all learning takes place in the classroom and sports, clubs, volunteer opportunities, employment, and hobbies provide additional opportunities for students to develop academic, social, and leadership skills.

Spend time this summer pursuing your passion. Follow your interests. And don’t forget to keep notes of what you achieved.

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Does Indicating Financial Need Impact Admissions Chances?


I heard that when applying to college not to say that you need financial aid, but when you get accepted, then go ahead and fill out financial aid information.  Is this correct?  My daughter will be working on her application this summer for early decision. Will stating we are looking for scholarship money decrease our chances of getting in?

Great question. Unfortunately, I have to give my most common answer – it depends. Here are some factors to consider.

Need Blind Admissions

Some colleges and universities are “need blind” in their admissions process. This means admissions decisions are made with NO consideration of a student’s ability to pay or potential financial need.

If your daughter is applying to need blind schools, you don’t need to worry about need affecting her admissions chances.

When Need Matters

Many colleges and universities take an “it depends” position. Need isn’t their primary consideration, but it may become a factor. Here are some examples:

  • A clearly outstanding candidate indicates he will apply for financial aid. This student has grades, test scores, activities, and essays above the typical profile for this college and he meets the criteria for academic scholarships. Need is likely overlooked in admissions because this guy will be a real asset to the school and a probable scholarship recipient.
  • A good student applies to her flagship state university and indicates she expects to apply for financial aid. The admissions office uses the established formula—likely a combination of class rank / GPA and standardized test score—to make a decision. Need never entered into the equation.
  • A marginal candidate at a particular university needs financial aid. The university is “need aware” in its policies (the opposite of need blind) and has already given out significant aid to attract top applicants. The university may choose to waitlist or reject this marginal candidate in favor of another borderline student who is able to pay the full cost with no aid.

You can see there are a variety of factors to consider. Usually the issue of aid doesn’t impact admissions at all. The times when a family’s ability to pay matter tend to involve borderline applicants, those who barely meet that year’s standard for admission. In these cases, colleges and universities are willing to pass on that student in favor of a similar one who can pay the full cost without aid.

New Financial Aid Process May Change the Answer

This fall seniors in the class of 2017 will find the college financial aid process has changed. The timetable for applying for financial aid has been accelerated to bring it more in line with the college application timeline. So instead of applying to college in the fall and waiting until January, February, or March to apply for aid, families will complete the FAFSA and financial aid applications beginning October 1.

This is good new for families.

  • FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) numbers will be based on your 2015 taxes, which are already done. In the past families had to estimate their taxes and submit early in order to “get in line” for institutional grants and aid.
  • Families will know their EFC (expected family contribution) sooner. This is the amount your family is expected to contribute towards your child’s college education on an annual basis. Financial aid will help with expenses that exceed this amount. (Many families discover this total is much higher than expected, so be ready.)
  • Because families will have information sooner, they can better target schools that are a good fit financially (or for scholarship potential.)

But the new timeline for financial aid may eliminate the strategy of applying for admission first, getting accepted, then applying for aid.

Other Considerations

I have a few other ideas on this topic.

First, I’m a rule follower by nature so the suggestion that a student should knowingly mislead a college or university rubs me the wrong way. Over the years I have seen very few students successfully game the system when it came to admission or aid and I have seen many more who got caught by their own omissions (or in some cases outright lies.)

Second, keep in mind that financial aid only covers the gap between your EFC and the cost of attendance. And the most common type of financial aid is a loan. Financial aid is NOT the same as scholarship money. (Financial aid is based on need; scholarships are based on merit / achievement.) So you may be considering all this “strategic timing” just to qualify for some student loans. A student who is seeking scholarship money can best do so by intentionally selecting schools where she will be above average for grades, test scores, and other personal achievements.

Next, you want to apply for financial aid as soon as possible. Under the old system, you couldn’t apply for aid before January 1, so it was possible to get an offer of admission before applying for financial aid. But the new system will not have this time gap. If you wait to apply for aid until your daughter is accepted, you risk missing out on the “good aid”—things like grants and work study which don’t need to be paid back.

Finally, keep in mind that the issue of need rarely impacts the final admission decision. Yes, you might hear a lot of people citing it as the reason their sons or daughters didn’t get in, but that’s because it is easier to attribute rejection to bureaucratic policies than personal inadequacies. In reality, most admissions offices, even those that consider need, are weighing the merit of a students’ application more than their potential for institutional need.

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Do You Need to Take the SAT for College?


My son has taken the ACT and we are pleased with his score. Does he need to take the SAT? I’m hearing a lot of parents say kids need both and that seems to be the advice from his school. What do you think?

Great question! No. Students do NOT need to take both exams; one is enough.

Let me clarify.

For the student who is not going to take a prep class or work with a quality tutor, the suggestion to take both the SAT and ACT is not bad advice. Some students prefer the format of one over the other. Usually students will have comparable scores on these exams; sometimes one test is clearly ahead of the other—not by a huge amount, but in the current admissions climate, any extra points are welcome.

Here’s why I’ve started recommending students focus on one test rather than trying to do both.

  1. Colleges are only going use a student’s best scores. So extra testing is unnecessary.
  2. High school students are busy and extra time can be more productively spent on meaningful activities or schoolwork.
  3. Taking multiple exams (often multiple times) can create a dilemma when applying to schools that request a student send ALL scores.
  4. Finally, I’m simply not a fan of over testing.

Let me explain.

All Colleges Accept ACT Scores

When I applied to college (in the ‘80s) there were some highly selective schools that did not accept ACT scores. Times have changed. Currently any college or university that requires test scores for admission will accept the ACT or SAT with no preference given to either one.

So a student with a strong ACT score can use that to apply to all the schools on his list—even the Ivy League schools.

Colleges Use Best Scores   

Colleges are looking for the scores that will best serve the student in the admissions process. Once a student has earned a score he or she is satisfied with, additional scores aren’t needed. In some cases, one test is enough. However, many students will re-take a particular exam or try to take both the SAT and ACT in order to earn scores they find acceptable.

In this case if your son is already pleased with his ACT scores, he doesn’t need anything else. His strong ACT score is sufficient.

Time Is Better Spent Elsewhere

Most students I work with are busy. They take challenging classes, participate in sports and clubs at school, volunteer to help others, and have family obligations. These aren’t kids with nothing to do. So preparing to take another major exam is going to take 5 to 100 hours of their time— time that would be better spent elsewhere.

This is why I encourage my students to give 100% to the test prep process in the six to ten weeks we work together. If they can earn top scores at that time, they get to move on and use the rest of the school year or summer to work on other more meaningful pursuits.

Taking tests just to take them is a waste of time. Colleges want to see a student’s best result. While it is nice to think the admissions office will be impressed with the effort of multiple attempts, effort is rarely a factor. What really impresses is achievement.

Some Schools Require All Test Scores

Some colleges and universities have standardized test policies that require students to send ALL results. Obviously this means if I took the ACT three times, I need to send all three scores. But what if I also took the SAT and don’t want colleges to see those scores because they aren’t as good as my ACT results?

In this situation, the student who is happy with his ACT score might not be happy with the results if he takes the SAT. Will he need to send those results too?

I think this brings up a dilemma in admissions. Students and parents should know the policies at each school and carefully read the language. Just know that taking another exam “just because” can present some predicaments in the future.

Over-Testing is a Bad Thing

I know! I’m the person who is always encouraging practice tests and more homework. But I also believe that over testing is not a good thing. Yes, students may take the ACT and/or the SAT multiple times to achieve a goal, but once the goal is met, move on.

A student who is satisfied with his ACT scores is D.O.N.E. in my book. So are students who have given 100% effort and have taken their exam of choice three times. At some point, it is healthy to see the testing phase as over and move onto more important things like high school achievements, college applications, or having time to think.


So this is where I remind parents and students that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You can take the SAT (or another ACT), but it isn’t a requirement. In fact, there are good reasons not to take another standardized test.

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