Should your high school student take the ACT or the new SAT? An expert offers his view.

With twins in 11th grade, I am in the throes of the ACT vs. SAT discussion.

Along with many high school juniors across the state, my twins took the PSAT in October. They also took the ACT in November. Based on their scores, they seem a better fit for the SAT. So, they’ll take the new SAT in June. Their school counselor recommends taking the ACT again as well, but they’re undecided.

Eric Greenberg is a college advising, test preparation and tutoring expert. His Greenberg Educational Group provides admission and application advising (high school, college and graduate school), test preparation and academic tutoring worldwide. I asked him to write an op-ed on how students can figure out whether to take the ACT or the revised SAT that makes its debut next month.

By Eric Greenberg

With college admissions at competitive universities more challenging than ever, it is no wonder students and parents are asking which test to take, the SAT or the ACT. To make matters even more complicated, the College Board is introducing a radically redesigned SAT this March – marking the test’s first major overhaul since 2005.

So what can students expect from the new test? For one, the scoring will revert back to two 200-800 scores, with no penalty for wrong multiple choice answers. The essay will become optional, much like the ACT.

Studying large numbers of vocabulary words has for many years been an integral component of the SAT prep process. Students can rest assured the new format will no longer test such vocabulary. The test will instead focus less on memorization and more on interpretation than the prior format.

Students across the country are prepping for the new SAT that rolls out next mont (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)h.

Students across the country are prepping for the new SAT that rolls out next month. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon).

Meanwhile, the reading portion of the test will become more evidence based, meaning students will be asked questions that test whether they understand not only content, but how arguments are constructed and how persuasive the arguments are.

The math portion will also see changes, as it becomes more practical, dealing with more real-life situations, such as conversions regarding distances and profit & loss. A calculator can only be used for some of the math questions.

The new SAT format (compared to the prior format) will in many ways more closely resemble the ACT test, as it becomes more consistent with high school classroom work. The ACT is staying substantially constant this year, maintaining its four multiple choice sections: English, Math, Reading and Science, with an optional essay.

Prior to choosing between the two tests, students should be made aware that the vast majority of United States colleges that require either the SAT or ACT do not have a preference, from an admissions point of view, as to which test a student should take. Therefore, students should take the test in which they will likely perform higher.

So, how does a student know this? One way a student can make an informed choice is by taking a practice test of each type of exam to determine his or her strengths and weaknesses in order to decide which actual test to take. Overall, the new SAT will focus a bit more on reading skills, while the ACT tends to focus a bit more on math and science.

It is important to understand that preparing for the SAT or ACT is a long-term process that incorporates the bank of knowledge learned in the classroom, as well as outside of the classroom. Taking a wide variety of literature, history, math and science courses can, for example, be very helpful. In addition, reading a wide variety of books and famous speeches outside of class can give students an opportunity to experience many different writing styles from many different countries and eras.

Math can also be strengthened outside of class. For example, parents can take the time to discuss ratios, percentages and restaurant tipping amounts on an everyday basis. Integrating the learning process naturally tends to work very well.

Many colleges do not require the SAT nor the ACT, and many do. Among the colleges that do require the SAT or ACT, the relative emphasis they put on the scores for admissions purposes varies greatly.

Since many students apply to a significant number of schools, their SAT or ACT scores can range from not counting at all for a particular college, to counting for a high percentage of the admissions process.

There are many ways to prepare for the SAT or ACT. Some possibilities include: individual test prep, class test prep, school test prep classes, test prep study guides, online resources etc. The College Board, which writes the SAT, has practice problems and resources on its website.

The ACT has practice problems and resources on its website. Test preparation requires consistent and regular focus and practice. Starting early is key so enough time can be allocated to the process. With all of the time demands on high school students, it can be difficult to juggle everything. That is why having a balanced plan is essential.

As we like to say: Start early and start smart


Reader Comments 0

Phil Baugham
Phil Baugham

Yes, both. And at least once per year starting in 9th grade. Overkill? No, remember the Zell Miller full tuition scholarship (and others) have SAT and or ACT requirements. That's a potential of tens of thousands of dollars in savings for a couple of Saturday's a year.


FYI - not all juniors in the state take the PSAT. We're in DeKalb schools and the test is mandatory for all sophomores. Juniors who take it do so primarily for the National Merit Scholarship, and they pay the test fee themselves.

My child's counselor has given us precisely zero suggestions concerning which test to take (like I said - DeKalb County). He's taken the ACT simply because I think there is more prep material available than there is with the new SAT.


Let's remember that the ONLY, SOLE design purpose for either test is to predict first year college survival. While both tests are superbly developed - perhaps some of the best in the world -  neither has ever been very good at their job. One of the posters a few days back was so proud of having found a graph that showed the relationship of the SAT to college grades. While there was some relationship, what the graph really showed was that predicting college survival with the SAT is not a whole lot better than throwing darts blindfolded. (Studies generally report that the SAT explains 10-20% of first year college grade variation.) That's not because the tests aren't as well made as they can be, it's because we're absolutely terrible at building tests that predict human behavior. 

BUT I'm sure that ETS and ACT will continue to reap huge incomes from the mythology they've developed over the years.

And that's not to say that a 1600 or a 72 doesn't reflect the performance of a superb student. But why on earth would you need an SAT or ACT to tell you that?

Kim Leverett Ball
Kim Leverett Ball

I suggest having them take both. Then if their scores are not what they want or need then have them take the one they felt the best about again. My son is a Senior he took the SAT first then the ACT early in his 11th grade school year. His ACT score was higher but both got him in where he needed but I made him take the SAT again and his score did improve but his ACT was still higher then SAT. Most of his friends did better on the SAT that took both. His strong area is Math he scored very high on the ACT math and did good on SAT but not as well as the ACT. The new SAT is suppose to be more like the ACT and they are scoring it differently which is suppose to also be better then the old way.


Back in the Dark Ages, I took both in 11th grade.  There was no test prep back then, although the registration book gave an idea of the types of questions.  Back then, some schools expected the SAT and some the ACT.  I did pretty comparably on them (1280 unrecentered vs 32 I think).

Fast forward to my kids.  My two oldest were much stronger verbally and had good subject matter understanding, so I thought the ACT  (75% reading and verbal and subject matter, only 25%math) would be best for them.  They took both, and it was.  My younger daughter was very strong in math, so she took the SAT (50% math) only.  They took the tests only once, with no test prep.  I think it is important to get a realistic idea of the student's skills, rather than a how-high-can-we get score.  But of course mine were not aiming for the Ivies or Seven Sisters.

I'd like to take the new SAT to get a feel for how it has changed.

Surprisingly, when I was 35 and took the GRE, I expected (had heard) the scores would be similar to the SAT.  For whatever the reason (the passage of almost 2 decades?) I scored 200 points higher on the GRE.  Moral:  You should never stop learning.


@Wascatlady You would be disappointed in your GRE score today.  My daughter, unprepared as ever, took the GRE and called us as she walked home from the test.  She had scored 169 and was feeling pretty low.  Wasn't until she got home and looked online to find out the top score was 170, not 800.  We received a much happier phone call later.