Should You Take the SAT or the ACT?

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Is it better to take the SAT or the ACT? Do some colleges prefer one test over the other? The ACT and SAT are two tests used by colleges to help determine if a student is ready for college level academics. They might also play a role in awarding financial aid that is based on academics rather than financial need. Many students ask if they need to take both tests to have their best chance in college admissions. To answer that, you need to know a little history, a little bit about how colleges use test scores, and a lot about your ability to get a strong test score.

SAT vs ACT

Historically the ACT was more popular in the Midwest, while the SAT was more common on the coasts. This has changed over the years and both tests are scheduled nationwide for weekend test dates. Students can register for either the SAT or the ACT using each tests online registration. (See the tables below for ACT and SAT test dates and registration deadlines.)

However, many high schools also administer either the ACT or the SAT during a school day. They use the test results to gather data on student achievement and school effectiveness. The test day administrations also give broader access to students who might not sign up for one of the tests on their own. But because each district or state chooses either the SAT or the ACT for school day testing, students might be less familiar with the other tests. This can lead them to wonder if they will have a disadvantage with colleges that might prefer one test over the other.

Decades ago, the SAT and ACT differed in how they measured college readiness. In the past 20 years, revisions to test format resulted in more similarities than differences. Both the ACT and SAT have timed sections that focus on specific academic areas. The ACT tests English skills like grammar and punctuation, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT has sections for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. The SAT does not have a specific Science section, but does include science related questions. They use these science related questions to generate a cross test Science score.

ACT Test Dates and Registration Deadlines

ACT Registration DeadlineLate Registration DeadlineACT Test Date
August 6August 20September 11, 2021
September 17October 1October 23, 2021
November 5November 19December 11, 2021
January 7January 21February 12, 2022
February 25March 11April 2, 2022
May 6May 20June 11, 2022
June 17June 24July 16, 2022*
*No test centers are scheduled in New York for the July ACT test date.

SAT Test Dates and Registration Deadlines

SAT Registration DeadlineLate Registration DeadlineSAT Test Date
July 30, 2021August 17, 2021August 28, 2021
September 3, 2021September 21, 2021October 2, 2021
October 8, 2021October 26, 2021November 6, 2021
November 4, 2021November 23, 2021December 4, 2021
February 11, 2022March 1, 2022March 12, 2022
April 8, 2022April 26, 2022May 7, 2022
May 5, 2022May 25, 2022June 4, 2022

Do Colleges Care Which Test Students Take?

The good news for students is that colleges will usually accept either test on an equal basis. Admissions officers understand that access to tests given in high schools varies. They use score concordance tables to compare ACT scores to SAT scores. They can also draw on years of experience to know what type of test score indicates readiness for success at their college. This means that students don’t have to decide if the SAT or ACT is better for a particular college, but if there is one test that is a better choice for them.

Complicating the question if a student should take the SAT or the ACT is a general lack of test availability due to Covid-19 restrictions. In some areas, tests have not been available for many months. The lack of test access in 2020 resulted in many colleges adopting test optional admissions policies. Some like University of California even chose to use test blind admissions, in which test scores are not considered during admissions review.

How Should Students Approach Testing?

Take a practice ACT and practice SAT test to see how you might do and if one test feels more comfortable. Try to take the practice all at one sitting to be as close as possible to an actual test day.

If your practice tests score near the range for admitted students at schools you are interested in, try to register for a test. Keep in mind that registration deadlines are about a month before the test. Also, it takes several weeks for scores to arrive, so tests taken after October of senior year might not be considered in early college applications.

If your scores don’t represent your academic performance in school, look into test optional or test blind admissions. FairTest keeps a list of colleges with test optional and test blind policies.

If tests are not available in your area, move on. Devote the time you might have spend on test practice to meaningful engagement in your activities.

In other words, it’s not just a question of if you should take the SAT or the ACT, but if test scores represent your abilities and what you would miss out on doing while concentrating on test practice.

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