ACT vs. SAT: Which One Wins in 2024?

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Boosted Brains Blog/ACT vs. SAT: Which One Wins in 2024?

ACT vs. SAT:

Which Test Wins in 2024?

Are you on the verge of taking the wrong college admissions test? Making the right choice between ACT and SAT can be the difference between being accepted to college and being rejected from college. If you’re planning to spend weeks upon weeks preparing for a test, you should probably spend a few minutes analyzing the best one to take.

And if you enjoy videos more than words, check out the YouTube video I published on this topic as well: ACT vs SAT: Which One Should You Take?

Video: ACT vs SAT: Which One Should You Take?

Once upon a time, the SAT dominated the world of college admissions testing. But over the last few years, that dominance has drastically changed. Students have been unhappy with the SAT for a while, and that’s caused the SAT to completely overhaul their test, going to the controversial digital format.

I’m Carson Weekley and over the past few years I’ve coached thousands of students on both the ACT and SAT. I’ve studied both tests and have seen the trends and changes over time. And because I’m a bit crazy, I also routinely take both tests to ensure my knowledge is up to date.

The Historical Dominance of the SAT

To understand these tests, we have to go back to the beginning. The SAT was introduced by the College Board way back in 1926, originally designed as an IQ test to measure college readiness. For decades, it was the benchmark for college admissions, primarily used by a select few elite institutions. As higher education expanded in the mid-to-late 1900s, the SAT became the standard requirement across the United States.

However, dissatisfaction with the SAT began to grow among students. Preparing for the test was difficult, as it required an understanding of complex Shakespearean English. Students felt that the SAT didn’t properly measure the skills that were necessary for success in the college classroom.

Introduction of the ACT

Have you wondered why the ACT is so different from the SAT? It’s because the ACT was created in 1960 by a college professor seeking a more straightforward, curriculum-based approach to college admissions testing. Initially a regional test favored in the Midwest and South, it quickly gained national acceptance.

By the late 1900s, colleges began to see the ACT as equivalent to the SAT. Rather than simply accepting a student’s SAT score as the standardized test, admissions readers started converting test scores into their own scale. Instead of seeing an SAT score out of 1600 or an ACT score out of 36, the committee that reads an application sees a score on that college’s own scale (possibly 1-5, 1-9, or 1-10).

How these scores are calculated has varied depending on the school and the time period, but since the late 1900s, colleges have treated the SAT and the ACT as equals. This equal treatment opened the door for a shift in student preferences away from the SAT.

Rise of the ACT

Students had defaulted to starting with the SAT, since it was more well-known. But the ACT had its advantages. The SAT, trying to maintain its IQ-like testing roots, continually introduced complicated new questions and used obscure vocab words. For students who didn’t grow up reading old English and Shakespearean texts, it was difficult to prepare for the test.

On the other hand, the ACT offered a different challenge. It tested students with longer, more straightforward questions under tighter time constraints, demanding fast and efficient problem-solving skills. This meant that students could learn the content and create strategies to approach each section, allowing them to improve their scores more consistently.

Number of Students Taking ACT vs SAT Over Time

Comparing the SAT vs. ACT: Key Differences

Today, both tests remain grounded in their roots. The ACT hasn’t structurally changed its test since 1989. And while the SAT has overhauled its test a few times in the last 20 years, its IQ test nature hasn’t changed significantly. When considering which test is best for you, here are the main differences:

1. Question Complexity

The SAT is still known for its intricate questions, often involving older English texts and less common vocabulary. This introduces challenges for students who do not have a background in these areas. In contrast, the ACT focuses more on direct questions and a broader review of high school curricula, making it easier for students to improve through practice and familiarity with the test format.

2. Format and Test Adaptability

This is where the controversy comes in. College Board (the company that owns the SAT) has recently transitioned the test from paper and pencil to an online test. But switching from bubble sheets to mouse-clicking is the least of the changes. With the transition, the SAT changed the structure of the test and made it “adaptive”.

          2a. Format

The new SAT is now shorter and has more time per question, allowing for even more complex wording on the English test. It also has less focus on grammar and more focus on vocab and verbal analysis. On the math test, there is easy access to a graphing calculator, but this feature is somewhat offset by trickier problems that disguise the topic of the question. See the table for the full format differences between the ACT and SAT.

ACT vs SAT Differences

          2b. Adaptability

The adaptiveness of the SAT means that students who do well on the early questions will see more difficult questions in the second half of the test. On the other hand, students who miss some questions early on will see easier questions later on. However, students who get placed into the “easy” modules will not be able to reach a top-level score, even if they get most of the questions correct. On the contrary, the ACT is not adaptive; every student sees questions of the same difficulty level.

College Board has marketed the SAT’s adaptive digital format as a way to tailor the test to each student's ability level. However, this change has also led to criticisms that it can unfairly cap students' potential scores based on early mistakes in the test. Additionally, students who ended up in the “difficult” modules of the first digital SAT have criticized that these modules were disproportionately difficult. More importantly, a common complaint is that College Board did not provide adequate material to allow students to prepare for the difficulty of the SAT.

3. Strategic Preparation and Improvement

Students preparing for the ACT benefit from its consistency and the availability of extensive practice materials. Since the ACT has not significantly changed since 1989, a large sample of questions is available for students to use for practice. Conversely, College Board has limited the number of SAT practice questions on its website, and students have pointed out the lack of similarity to the difficult questions on the first official digital SAT.

Making Your Decision: SAT or ACT?

If you excel in handling complex texts and abstract reasoning under pressure, the SAT might be a good test for you. However, if you prefer a more straightforward approach where consistent practice can lead to measurable improvements, the ACT could be more up your alley.

Since most high school students take the PSAT during their sophomore and/or junior year, I recommend that you use this score to see if the SAT is a good fit for you. If you’re happy with your score on this test, then the SAT might be a good way to quickly knock out your standardized testing without much preparation work.

But if you’re unhappy with this score and want to see some improvement, then I would recommend going the route of the ACT. With the ACT, you can start early and become familiar with the concepts and the structure of the test. You can prepare for the types of questions that they’re going to ask and consistently improve your score if you have sound preparation.

Again, this is from someone who has coached students on both tests for a number of years. I want the best outcomes for my students, so if in the future I think that the SAT is the best test for college admissions, I’ll certainly update my opinion and let everyone know. But for now, the ACT is the best test for most high school students to take, especially if you’re looking to make a significant improvement from where you start out.

In case all this talk of score improvement leaves you wondering how you can improve your ACT score, I’ve put together a roadmap for doing exactly that. This roadmap showcases the path that one of my students followed to improve her ACT score from a 22 to a 30 in just 6 weeks. Click the button below to see how she made such an incredible improvement, and if you’re interested in working with me personally, you can apply to our program from the case study page.

Carson Weekley Head ACT Coach Picture

Founder & Head ACT Coach

Carson Weekley

In high school, Carson was inspired to challenge his test-taking abilities after receiving an initial ACT score of 31. Carson dove into rigorous study sessions to learn the material. He initially studied for over one hundred hours with no improvement, so he knew he was doing something wrong. After experiencing inefficient practice, he set out to create a more efficient study plan for himself. This mindset shift paid off, as he ultimately achieved a 36 on the ACT.

This score opened doors to multiple top-ranked schools, including MIT and the University of Chicago, where Carson ultimately received an Economics degree, with honors. It also helped him land a job in investment banking, where he spent time honing his financial skills. Now, Carson is passionate about helping others reach their full potential on the ACT and unlock the opportunities that come with a high score. Everything he teaches is centered around being as efficient as possible, as he knows how frustrating it is to waste time studying.

In his spare time, Carson enjoys playing pickleball, boating, sports, poker, and spending time with his family and dogs. If you have any questions, he can be reached at carson@boostedbrains36.com.

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