Are the Differences Between the SAT and the ACT a Big Deal?

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Astrella Sjarfi and friends after their last session with their SAT teacher

Test scores are a big part of the college admissions process in the US, and most applicants typically spend months, if not years, preparing for it. Before spending months of preparation, let’s look at the differences between the top two standardized tests—SAT and ACT. In this article, Astrella Sjarfi compares the two and talks through why the ACT was the better option for her.

TL;DR Yes, yes they are.

To all you high school juniors and seniors out there: Have you ever gotten frustrated with the SAT? Have you bought all the SAT practice books out there, and even re-took the SAT, only to find out your score dropped, instead of increased? Have you ever thought of applying to the U.K. instead, because the SAT makes the U.S. college application process so…rempong?

I used to feel the same way, ‘til I made the “risky” decision of switching to the ACT, three months before the regular decision Common App deadline. In Indonesia, SAT is still the norm for college admissions testing. It took me awhile to even explain to my mom that the two aren’t the same (the similarity between the two when pronounced quickly doesn’t help either). But in the U.S., the ACT has overtaken the SAT as the most popular college admissions test in the country. Based on personal experience, these reasons are why the ACT worked better for me, and possibly for you too:

The ACT’s total score is the average of all the subsection scores instead of its sum.

The ACT’s total score is a 36, and each section is worth 36 points too. This means that if you excel in one section but not another, one of your higher section scores can balance out one of your lower ones. I’m no math expert, but averaging somehow gives the impression of a higher overall score, and feels less demotivating than a possibly lower SAT score.

There’s a science section that seems intimidating (especially for non-STEM people like me) but it could work in your favor!

The ACT is comprised of Reading, English, Math, and Science sections, plus the optional Writing section. The Science section is an ACT exclusive—but it’s more like a visual literacy test than a science knowledge test. They test your ability to read graphs and analyze data. Most times, the needed science knowledge is already given to you in the text.

Less ambiguity between reading section answers

I used to struggle with SAT Reading because sometimes two answers would be really similar, besides a small detail differentiating the two. I found the ACT Reading a lot more straightforward. The answer you need for a question should be embedded in the text, with minimal external inferences made.

No math grid-ins (!!!)

These are the bane of my existence. The open-ended SAT grid-ins give you a higher risk of getting your answers wrong because there’s no way to check back and plug in potential given answers to determine the right one. Also, with the time pressure and the constant switch between subjects that your brain has to get accustomed to, it’s nice to occasionally not have to do actual calculations in the ACT’s all-multiple choice Math section. (Bonus points because calculators are allowed for all parts of the Math section.)

If you’ve already taken the SAT, you know the drill; the ACT’s test-taking procedure is not so different from the SAT’s. What’s most important is to familiarize yourself with the format, and practice, so that during the actual test, you can skip through the instructions and save time. The ACT website offers free practice exams, and asking your kakak kelas if you can borrow their old practice books is a good way to practice without spending all those $$$ (chances are, they no longer need it, but make sure the books are for the right test editions!)

A sample of the free ACT Practice Test (courtesy of the ACT)
A sample of the free ACT Practice Test (courtesy of the ACT)

Some other things to remember:

  • Plug in! This is mentioned above, but it should be used in the Math section to find the right answer by inserting the potential answers into the given function. Basically, it’s working on a math problem in reverse order.
  • The English section might be challenging for non-native English speakers, because some questions can be intuitive. The best way to remedy this is to read and converse in English as much as possible! Yes, you can try to memorize grammar rules, but that could complicate things and run the risk of slowing you down.
  • Elimination. Like what the name suggests, when you’re stuck, cross out answers you know for sure are wrong, and intelligently guess between the remaining choices. It increases the probability of getting a correct answer!
  • Don’t be afraid to underline and write in the margins! This seems obvious but I’ve seen many of my friends finish practice exams with zero marks on their question booklets. Not only does it help you place emphasis on certain sentences, but it also makes it easier for you to navigate through big chunks of text.
  • I found the ACT Math a bit more challenging than SAT Math, but I don’t see that to be a big problem—they’re nothing that Indonesian math don’t already cover
  • Don’t lose track of time! (I think the ACT is a bit more pressed for time, but as long as you practice and pace yourself well, you should be okay.)

Like with all standardized exams, each one has its pros and cons. If you think the ACT is suitable for you, you should definitely give it a go! Taking the risk last minute allowed me to move up the tier for many schools on my list, turning some of my reach schools into matches. Ultimately though, the SAT/ACT isn’t the only defining requirement for U.S. college admissions. Arguably, the application essays can be a deciding factor for two applicants with the same test scores, so don’t disregard other parts of the application. Good luck!

(P.S this is not a paid endorsement for the ACT, it’s just a reminder that if things don’t work out the first time around, there are always alternatives that may even be better suited for you!)

My friends and I after our SAT study session. Photo by author.
My friends and I after our SAT study session. Photo by author.
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Astrella Sjarfi is an undergraduate student studying Economics with possible minors in Writing and…something else, tbd, at Washington University in St Louis. She is interested in unconventional econ topics and the social sciences. In her free time, she enjoys reading creative nonfiction, listening to spoken word poetry and musical theatre, and playing ultimate Frisbee. There’s nothing more she loves than chewy chocolate chip cookies and Law & Order SVU. She can be reached at astrellasjarfi@gmail.com.