Laurie Kimbrel Superintendent | ACT or SAT?

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Ask any almost anyone and they will tell you that completing college applications can be complicated and emotional for a variety of reasons.   Students often report that the most anxiety inducing portion of the process involves the ACT and SAT exams. Both are nationally administered, standardized tests that help colleges evaluate students for admission.  Both tests have been rites of passage for decades, but the landscape has changed and students can make a choice about which test to take.

Until recently, the college entrance test you took was based on your zip code.  Students on the east and west coasts typically took the SAT and students in the middle of the country usually took the ACT.  For most, there wasn’t much thought that went into the decision, you simply took the test you were told to take by the colleges in your geographic area.  Times have changed dramatically and almost every college now accepts either test.  In fact, colleges do not express a preference for one test over the other.

As illustrated in the chart below, more and more TUHSD students take the ACT every year and they are experiencing a great deal of success.

Grad Year English Score Math Score Reading Science Composite Total Tested
2010 26.3 26.2 26.1 24.6 25.9 375
2014 26.8 26.2 26.8 25.3 26.4 458


It’s also interesting to note that the California state average composite score was 22.2 in 2010 and 22.3 in 2014.  Clearly, TUHSD students are performing far above state average and of even more significance; our students’ performance is improving at a rate that far exceeds the state.

What is the difference between the two tests?

There are many factors that distinguish the two tests from each other, but briefly, the ACT is an achievement test that measures the content taught in school.  Success on the ACT is dependent on mastery of curriculum and therefore is closely tied to a student’s experience in their school.  The SAT is more of an aptitude test and it measures reasoning and verbal abilities.

The ACT has five sections:  English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test.  The SAT has three sections:  Critical Reading, Mathematics and a required Writing Test.

How are the questions different on the ACT and SAT?

According the Princeton Review website, the ACT questions tend to be more straightforward and easier to understand on a first read.  The SAT may require more time to think about a question prior to the formulation of a response.  Furthermore, SAT penalizes for wrong answers, so guessing is discouraged.  The ACT is scored based on the number correct answers with with no penalty for guessing.

Is there is difference in the length of the tests? 

The ACT is 3 hours and 25 minutes including the optional Writing Test.  The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes.

How do students choose the best test?

The place to get great advice is from the TUHSD guidance counselors!  This blog post barely scratches the surface of the complexities of both tests.  Our counselors know our students on an individual basis as well as the ins and outs of both tests.  They can help a student assess their strengths and weaknesses and make informed decisions about the entire college application process.  Another great place to get advice is from the College and Career Counselors.  They have access to a variety of resources such practice tests, information about specific colleges and universities, as well as processes sign up to take tests.

More web resources:

The ACT:

The SAT:

Information on the 2016 SAT revisions:

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