image by Brendan Church


By the summer before senior year, many students find themselves in the following situation: they’ve been prepping for the SAT or ACT for months and have already taken it two or three times. But despite all the work they’ve put in, they just can’t seem to reach their goals. Perhaps their scores are just a bit too low across the board, or perhaps one section remains stubbornly resistant to improving.

It’s not surprising that many students who find themselves in this situation start to wonder whether they should switch from the SAT to the ACT or, somewhat less commonly, from the ACT to the SAT.

I worked with a few students who did ultimately switch tests, and I saw it go both ways.

As a general rule, the ones who were most successful were those who had skills they needed to do well on both tests and were almost where they wanted to be on the SAT – the style of the ACT ultimately worked better for them. They took that test once (without any tutoring), aced it, and were done. So if you’re scoring, say, 1450 or above on the SAT, it’s probably safe to assume you won’t do too badly on the ACT without a huge amount of prep — and you might even do extremely well.

In contrast, the students who were less successful were those whose underlying skills were shakier, and who switched tests to avoid doing some of the hard work that raising their scores on the original test would have entailed. They were looking for a quick fix, not really understanding that the test wasn’t the problem.

This is, unfortunately, a common trap, and if you’re looking to switch exams, you should be willing to honestly consider your motives for doing so. If you’ve been struggling on the SAT, the who knows? maybe I’ll just do really well on the other test-mentality is almost certainly wishful thinking. It’s understandably tempting, but it also sets you up for additional rounds of stress and frustration — and that’s not something you need heading into senior year.

So how do you determine whether switching tests is worth it? Because the SAT and the ACT have now become more similar, some of the factors that would have been tie-breakers in the past (e.g., vocabulary) are now less important; however, there are still a handful of key differences that can help you decide whether changing tests is a good idea. Here are my top five.


1) Timing

This is among the most significant differences between the tests: overall, the SAT is a slower-paced test, whereas the ACT requires you to work at a very brisk pace. If you are already struggling to finish SAT sections, or just barely finishing them on time, that’s a sign that you could get into big trouble on the ACT. And even if you’re more or less okay on SAT timing, you still might have to do some serious mental readjusting to manage the ACT.

Case in point, the SAT multiple-choice Writing section allots you 35 minutes for 44 questions, whereas the ACT English section gives you 45 minutes for 75 questions. Now, if you really know what you’re doing, many of those questions can be answered in a couple of seconds, but if you struggle with grammar, the ACT timing can be unmanageable.

It also requires extremely careful attention to pacing: it’s not uncommon for students to miss only a few questions on the first three passages but then crash and burn on the last two because they’re so fatigued. And there are still three sections of the test left (four if you’re writing the essay)!

The bottom line: if you’re not a fast worker and not eligible for extra time, stick with the SAT. If you’re already breezing through the SAT and don’t mind working quickly, the ACT might be worth a shot. (Of course, that could also mean you’re working too quickly on the SAT, and that your score would go up if you just slowed down!)


2) Can you read graphs and charts easily?

If the graph- and chart-based questions on the SAT Reading and Writing sections are already giving you trouble, then switching to the ACT is probably not be such a good idea: the entire Science section consists of these types of questions, and some of them are notably harder than the ones that appear on the SAT. On the SAT, these questions can be worked around — you can guess on them selectively and still end up with a very strong score — but on the ACT, that’s not an option.


3) How attached are you to your calculator?

If you’re considering switching from the ACT to the SAT, perhaps because you just can’t get your score on that darn Science section up, you need to keep in mind that the SAT has an entire Math section in which you are not permitted to use your calculator. If you can’t handle the thought of giving it up, then you should stick with the ACT.


4) Are you having trouble with old-fashioned language on the Reading portion of the SAT?

Unlike the SAT, ACT rarely includes passages from before the mid-twentieth century: “historical documents” passages are absent, and Prose Fiction passages are generally taken from works written in the last few decades. In addition, ACT Reading questions are generally much more straightforward: if you’re losing points on SAT reading because some of the texts are too confusing, and you are otherwise comfortable reading at a very brisk pace, the ACT might in fact be a better choice.


5) Are you stronger in math/science or in reading/writing?

If you’re more STEM-focused, the ACT lets you play to your strengths in a way the SAT does not. Whereas the SAT has a single Math score, with no separate Science section, the ACT allows you to potentially obtain high scores in not one but two STEM-related sections. All other things being equal, switching tests may be worth it if doing so allows you to obtain a really high score in one of your main areas of interest.

Say, for example, you’re a prospective CS major who has been focusing on the SAT. So far, your highest scores are 630 Verbal and a 710 Math — strong but not stratospheric. On the ACT, you might score comparably in English/Reading, somewhere in the 27-28 range. You might do more or less the same in Math, too, say about a 32. On Science, however, you might just have an intuitive feel for the section and score a 35.

Even if colleges generally report scores by composite, they will obviously take the breakdown into consideration when reading your application, and a very high score in an area aligned with your prospective major can be a tip in your favor.

To be clear, switching tests is something you should seriously consider only if you do not need to do significant amounts of prep. It is not a good idea to start from scratch late in the game. But if you take a practice test cold, and your starting score is higher than the comparable score on the test you’ve been taking, OR your score is comparable and the only major weakness is in one of the more straightforward areas (English or Math), it probably makes sense to give the other test a shot.