College Consulting Tips Post

SAT vs. ACT (comparison and score conversions..)

Please note:  this article was originally written in 2007, when the SAT was still including every score on each student's score report.  However, starting with the class of 2010, the College Board will be allowing students to select scores from particular test dates, just as the ACT does (a policy called "Score Choice").  This means that you can now take the SAT as many times as you like, and send only your best scores to colleges, with the exception of a handful of schools (UPenn and Stanford being the most notable) who are requiring applicants to send in all of their scores.  -BRM

The SAT vs. ACT debate is a topic that I spend a great deal of time discussing with parents and students.  Many students are confused as to which test to take, whether to take both tests or just one test, and how to fit their test-preparation routine around already hectic schedules.  Here are the facts as I know them, and my personal options and suggestions.  Please remember, however, that every student is different and you should also consult with your high school's counselor and (if you can afford it) an independent college consultant before making any such important decision regarding your child's future. 

To begin with, The SAT (administered by the College Board) and the ACT (administered by ACT, Inc.) are completely separate tests.  Nearly every college accepts both, and some prefer (or even require) the SAT.   

As to whether students should take the ACT:  even though I am convinced that many of America's best colleges prefer the SAT,  I still believe that all students should take the ACT, because it is a no-consequences test.  If you take the ACT and score poorly, it doesn't matter-just don't send in that particular ACT score.   The ACT is a much different test from the SAT…it is more of an achievement test (meaning it measures how much you know) than an aptitude test such as the SAT (which measures your reasoning ability more than your knowledge of raw facts).  This means that your ACT scores will likely be about as good as your grades in most cases.  For students who receive high grades, you will likely do well on the ACT.  Students with low grades will likely not perform so well.  But here's the thing:  you can take it as many times as you want, and you can pick your best score on any one day and send that particular score into your college of choice.  In other words, it is a SCORE CHOICE test.  And if you don't like any of your scores, you don't have to send them in at all—you can just send SAT scores instead (so long as your college does not specifically require the ACT).    Very few colleges require ACT scores only-most require either the ACT or the SAT

The SAT, however, is not a Score Choice test.  This means that every SAT and SAT Subject Test that a student takes becomes part of his/her official score report, and there is NO WAY TO AVOID SENDING ANY SAT SCORE TO ANY SCHOOL, so long as the school requires at least one type of SAT.  So for those of you who are considering taking an SAT Subject Test "just to get it out of the way" in your freshman or sophomore year, I would advise against this unless you are fully convinced you are going to receive an excellent score (there is an easy way to do this-take a timed REAL PRACTICE TEST from the OFFICIAL GUIDE TO SAT SUBJECT TESTS!).  You cannot afford to take the SAT to "just see how you do" because everyone is going to see how you did! Simply put, there are no "do-overs" when it comes to taking the SAT….most students take it the SAT more than once, but students should aim to take it only once and do it right the first time.   And don't listen to the myth that colleges "take your best score" remember, they can "take" what they want, but they can see the difference between someone who scored a 2000 the first time around and someone who scored three 1850s but cherry-picked the best scores from each one to add up to 2000.    Showing improvement is good, but it's better to do well the first time and GET THE SAT OVER WITH-to move on with your life and all the other passions that will make colleges interested in you.   All a good SAT score does is get you looked at, so you have to have an interesting, purposeful life as well if you want to get into a great college.

Anyway, back to the SAT:  The SAT also has a reputation as the more difficult test, mostly because it is!  It has a confusing scoring system and is full of problems that are designed for the student to answer incorrectly.  There are trap doors galore, the test requires an advanced vocabulary, and several of the questions are nearly impossible for most students to figure out!  However, this is also the reason why most colleges prefer the SAT as it gives them a different picture of the student other than his or her grades.  The ACT tests mostly facts and its questions are relatively straightforward, and most students will tell you that it's a much easier test. However, this is also the reason why the SAT has a better reputation.    For example, the SAT is the preferred choice of all Ivy League colleges, whether they admit it or not.  It's a flawed test, but it's the best thing they've got.

There are several high-school guidance departments out there that will tell you to "just take one" test.  I disagree.  While it is true that nearly every college accepts both tests,  Students who take the ACT but not the SAT risk being unfairly prejudiced by certain admissions committees, who will naturally assume that the student's SAT score was poor.  Students who take the SAT only, but do not send in ACT scores, are not hurt in the same way because they are more or less deferring to the quality of their high school curriculum, in that students from elite college-prep high schools should be receiving elite ACT scores anyway.  In other words, if your school has a great reputation and you have great grades, the ACT is unnecessary.  If you are applying to elite colleges, then you should probably focus on acing the ACT instead-it's what the best schools prefer. 

That being said, if when it's all said and done, if your ACT scores are better, then go ahead and send the ACT scores as well.  Couldn't hurt, and will strengthen your case that your grades are more important than your SAT.  And how do I know which is better, you ask?  Just consult a table that compares student percentiles from both tests.   (Just type “SAT ACT conversion table” into Google and you'll see what I mean.) 

Do remember, however, that some students take the SAT only. Many of these such students are applying only to elite Ivy League and/or Ivy League caliber schools, and do not take the ACT at all, so comparing the ACT test taking pool directly to that of the SAT test taking pool is an exercise in futility, a comparison of apples to oranges.  In other words, your son or daughters' SAT score is probably actually a little higher of an ACT percentile than the numbers seem to suggest.

(I know this to be the case because I also have extensive experience as a tutor on the east coast, where the SAT rules and the ACT is rarely mentioned, at least for the highest-scoring students.)  So what does this mean for you?  If the ACT score corresponds to is a higher percentile score than the SAT score , send in the ACT score as well.  If the SAT is better, don't send the ACT scores at all…and the colleges that you apply to will be none the wiser.  Many colleges actually use this chart and convert SAT and ACT scores into a common number used for admission.  For example, the entire UC system now does this.  So take advantage of this..but if you skip the SAT, don't think that the admission committee won't wonder why you choose to do so.  Some admissions officials will raise an eyebrow at this, while others won't.  Some officials trust the SAT score report more than the ACT report because the SAT report shows all the SAT tests taken instead of just the student's best ACT score.

So, are you confused yet?  In short, take both.  Take the SAT once (or as few times as possible) and the ACT as many times as possible, then choose the best score of them all and send it to colleges.  Remember, the ACT has Score Choice, while the SAT does not

Also, in addition to the SAT and ACT, don't forget to take at least 2 SAT Subject Tests (be careful, though: even though most schools require only two, some require three).  These are only hour-long tests and you can take up to three in one day (though I recommend one or two at a time, maximum).  ACT prep is neither as essential nor as extensive as SAT prep, as the ACT is a more straightforward test of knowledge.

If you need SAT or ACT PREP, then please check out the rest of our blog postings, where we have free test-prep advice posted at all times.        -Brian


Back to Blog Home

  • sat-tutoring.jpg
    SAT Tutoring

  • ACT Tutoring

  • LSAT Tutoring

  • GRE Tutoring

  • GMAT Tutoring