Given today's competitive environment, we would advise any student who is serious about having multiple options for college to take both tests, and to take both at some point in the junior year of high school. Additionally, we strongly encourage students to be prepared for the content, format, and intensity of both tests before they take them. Sample tests are available in the guidance offices of all high schools. Nonetheless, sometimes more intensive preparation is necessary in order to do one's best.
There is a prevailing belief that a good student needs only to learn some strategies to do well on the ACT or SAT. This is however, untrue. Each test requires specific academic knowledge and skill, both in math and in English. Some students do better on the ACT. Why this is may not be clear, but it is a fact. There are some things about the ACT which make it a desirable choice.
The reading comprehension sub-test on the ACT contains four long passages from different content areas: literature, social science, natural science, and humanities. Some consider the reading comprehension on the ACT to be easier.
The English test on the ACT consists of several paragraphs that contain errors in grammar and usage, errors in punctuation, and some awkwardly written sentences. On this test students are required to recognize and repair these errors, and edit these paragraphs. This is not an easy test, but one that tests skills that are relatively easy to learn with diligent practice.
The ACT is structured so that each subtest is completed before moving onto the next. There is not the recycling of material, i.e., moving from one subtest to another and back again, which is the case with the SAT.
The science subtest on the ACT requires that one read well, interpret graphs and charts, and understand the implications of given data. It is a subtest that needs to be understood well and practiced sufficiently.
The science test may be considered the most challenging aspect of the ACT. But for students who are good with data and strong readers, this is not a problem. For others, the skills tested here may be learned with effort.
Should you take the ACT or SAT or both?
Although both tests contain content from algebra I, II, and geometry, the math tests are significantly different. The content of the ACT is much more like textbook mathematics. To do well on the ACT requires that one thoroughly review algebra I, II, and geometry, and be able to apply much of what is contained in high school curricula. The ACT also contains some trigonometry.
The SAT math questions largely do not mirror the textbooks and tend to be more creative and abstract in nature. The new SAT also contains a math section that will require students to work without a calculator. Carried over is the math subtest in which students must produce answers without the multiple-choice option.
The ACT contains one long math subtest - 60 questions in 60 minutes. The wording and style of the ACT math questions tend to be more straight-forward. Calculator usage is permitted, although one must know one's definitions, theorems, and formulas. For the more complex trig questions at the end of the ACT the formulas are usually given.
On thing to remember about both the SAT and the ACT is that although some formulas are given, all the formulas needed to do the math tests are not. Students still need to learn necessary formulas on their own.