TUN sits down with Brionna Johnson, a graduate assistant and former adviser with the College Advising Corps at The University of Georgia, to discuss the differences between the SAT and ACT. That way, you can decide which test is right for you.
TUN: Thanks for joining us, Brionna.
JOHNSON: Absolutely! Happy to be here.
TUN: When deciding which test to take, what are some of the initial questions that students should ask themselves?
JOHNSON: This is a question that I get a lot. Especially now, during the COVID pandemic, there’s just a lot of uncertainty surrounding testing and the testing landscape.
I would honestly say, during this unprecedented time, to have students take whichever test works best for their schedules. Also, I would advise them to do some research on each test and see which test fits them better as a student.
Again, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is limited seating and limited tests being scheduled for the Fall. To ensure everyone’s safety, ACT is actually also doing testing on Sunday, which is brand new.
As far as differences between the tests, the ACT is a little bit quicker-paced. You always get a calculator while taking the ACT, and there is a science section. So, some students who prefer science like to lean more toward the ACT.
The SAT has a reading section, writing section and two math sections. But, one of the math sections does not permit calculator use, so some students are turned off by that.
Going back to the uncertainty with the pandemic right now, check out all the test dates. See which one works best for you and study for the one you’re going to take.
TUN: To put it bluntly, is one test easier than the other one?
JOHNSON: Students ask me this all the time too. I’ve never been able to figure out the answer to this question.
I feel like every student has a different preference. I think that largely is because of the way that the tests differ — with the ACT, again, being a little bit quicker-paced and having that science section and the SAT having that math section without a calculator.
It really just depends on the student. It depends on how you vibe. I have some students who will study for one test and go and take it and be like, “That was not for me.”
Students should also know that the tests are scored a bit differently as well. The ACT is scored out of 36, and it just averages the average of all sections that you took. Whereas, the SAT is graded by adding up your score in each section.
So, if you have a higher score in a certain section of the ACT, that could bump your entire score up, whereas the SAT is graded by just adding the sections together.
So, I think it’s really just going to depend on what the student is thinking. Also, just understanding the differences between the tests can help a student a lot.
TUN: One of the best ways to decide which test to take is to take practice tests of both tests. Where can students find practice tests?
JOHNSON: Google is definitely your best friend. I always say, “Start with Google. Type in ‘free SAT/ACT practice’.” There are definitely a lot of free resources online.
The College Board has full-length, printable SAT tests with answer keys on its website. There’s also Khan Academy, which is a free platform that you can use to study for the SAT. You can also link your PSAT scores on there so you can access customized questions.
ACT offers similar resources online.
Also, go to your local libraries. Those big, blue SAT books that you can buy from Barnes & Noble, a lot of libraries, sometimes high school libraries, have those for rent.
Also, definitely don’t forget your teachers at school. I know a lot of high school English teachers or math teachers, when they have tutoring sessions, students can hop into those.
Look around. See what’s going on in your school community. See what’s going around in your town. Start with the free stuff and then go to the paid stuff later —definitely depend on Google because there’s a lot of stuff on the internet.
TUN: Are there price differences between the tests? Is one of the tests more expensive than the other?
JOHNSON: Only slightly. The ACT costs $55 this year. If you add the writing test, it goes up to $70.
The SAT is going to be $52 this year. With the writing test, it’ll go up to $68.
Both tests also do have a rescheduling fee. So, if you register for one date and then have to change it to another, you do have to pay an additional fee for that.
But, students should definitely know that there are fee waivers available for students who have a significant financial need. If you’re a student who has free or reduced lunch, any form of SNAP benefits or other help from the government, talk with your parents and your school counselor to see if you’re eligible.
Fee waivers are definitely there for students who are eligible. So, check that stuff out. Talk with your parents and counselor to see if you can do that.
But, as far as students who are paying for the exams, they’re pretty equal in price. Again, it costs $55 for the ACT and $52 for the SAT.
TUN: Would you advise students to fill out the optional essay sections of these tests?
JOHNSON: It really depends. So, each test, when you register for it, the College Board and ACT have search engines on their websites that you can use to see which schools require the essay for the SAT or the ACT. I always tell students to start with that. Start with that search engine. See if the schools that you’re interested in are actually requiring the essay.
Sometimes, the search engine will tell you to contact the school directly to find out, and that is a great way to make that first connection with a college. If you’re nervous or you’re unsure, you can shoot a quick email to a representative from a college and just ask them if they’re requiring it.
Also, if you are using a fee waiver and you get the essay section for free, I always tell students to just go ahead and try it. Take it once. But, if you are paying for that, make sure that it’s required first.
Again, with the COVID pandemic, there are lots of schools who are going completely test-optional and not requiring the SAT or the ACT at all. So, I definitely encourage students to do some research and make sure that they have to take a test and write an essay before doing those things.
As far as differences between the essay sections, though, the ACT is a 40-minute essay where students have to create an argument. Essentially, they give you a prompt. You have to pick which side you want to be on and then write an essay about that.
The SAT has it a little bit different. You’re presented with an argument and you have to describe and analyze the argument that was made in the passage.
The SAT essay is also a little bit longer. So, if you’re choosing between which essay to take, those are some things to consider.
Again, I always go back to the point of Google and YouTube being your best friends. There are tons of videos online comparing the two and analyzing the differences.
Study for the test that you’re taking. Look up those things and just really be prepared for the test you’re about to take.
TUN: How many times would you advise students to take these tests? Should they perhaps take both? Is that an option?
JOHNSON: Yeah. It’s definitely an option. I always tell students, if they have the means to do so and it’s been accessible for them, then definitely take both.
That’s largely because of what we talked about before. I’ve had students go into the test thinking they were going to like one better because of the way it’s presented and then they really just like the other one better. I’ve had students who go and take both and are like, “I’m never doing that one again. I’m only going to do this one over.”
So, it’s really up to you and your personal preference. Colleges will accept either one. So, I tell students to take both if you have the means to do it.
If you are eligible for those fee waivers that we mentioned before, you can get two SAT tests for free. And, this year, you can actually get six ACT tests for free. So, if you are eligible for those fee waivers, definitely use them all if you can.
That being said, I have also had students who test again and again and again and then eventually hit a wall. I’ve had one student who took the test 10 times. Her last four times, she got the same exact score.
That can definitely happen. There is a point that you hit. You can only study so much. You can only know so much. I have seen students hit that testing wall.
Work with your counselor. If you have a college advisor or a college counselor, talk with them about your individual situation and your individual scores.
Also, look at your scores in the context of what school you want to go to or what school you want to get admitted to. Check out what their averages are and if they have minimums. Consider what you’re aiming for when deciding if you want to test again.
Again, this does add up. It’s expensive. So definitely talk with the people who are at your school to support you before spending all this extra money just to see if you can get your score up. It may not be necessary. So, definitely lean on your support systems and see what’s the best route for you.
ACT is actually proposing some new policies for this year. There will be some new formats for the ACT test where students can retest a certain section instead of having to take the entire test. This will really help students in terms of superscore.
Superscore is when you have a higher score in a certain section from a different test, you can add all those scores together to get a higher overall score.
For example, if a student is taking the entire test, they’d have to take science, math, English — all of those sections. Under the proposed changes, if you don’t like your math score, you could, in theory, go back and just take that singular math section, add that higher score to your previous overall score and have a higher score overall.
If these testing policies do take action, students will definitely have a lot more autonomy over their ACT scores.
That’s definitely something to look out for. Definitely check ACT’s website. As you’re registering, see what new policies are being enacted.
TUN: Thanks, again, Brionna, for taking the time.
JOHNSON: Absolutely! Thanks.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.