Should I take the ACT, or the SAT? Though it’s the perennial king of test prep FAQs, this question doesn’t lend itself to straightforward answers. Even so, determining your personal answer can mean the difference between a smooth, efficient prep experience and a monotonous, unrewarding one. Addressing this question is, therefore, one of the key first steps in planning your standardized test prep timeline.

Deal with Uncertainty, and Cut to the Chase

First things first: get comfortable with the fact that when you consider which test to take, you’re dealing in probabilities, not certainties. There is no guarantee that the ACT will be “perfect” for you, or that the SAT will be far-and-away the optimal choice for scoring your highest. Ultimately, the best you can do is reach a probabilistic conclusion: it’s more likely I’ll do better on this test.

While we could expound upon the types of students each test favors and ask you a series of questions to help you determine which one of those types you are, this approach is both subjective and speculative. The surest way to determine which test is best for you is to take a full-length, official diagnostic exam of each type, and to compare your results using a concordance table.

Diagnostics

Diagnostic is test prep lingo for a simulated (practice) test whose results can help you determine your strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully which exam to pursue. Though taking two 3-hour exams right out of the gates may seem daunting, doing so provides the best way to challenge yourself with the structure, pace, and content of the ACT and SAT. By taking full-length diagnostics, you’ll be able to contrast your experiences and expose your testing proclivities. For example, some students simply can’t deal with the rapid speed of the ACT; others are fine working quickly, but struggle with the more abstract nature of the questions on the SAT. There’s only one way to find out whether the structure and style of one test or the other fit you best, and that’s to take a practice run on both exams.

If it turns out that your score on one of the exams is comparably much higher, you should probably pursue the former exam. Consider the following example.

Charlise takes a diagnostic ACT and a diagnostic SAT. Her composite (overall) scores are as follows.

SAT: 1310 (scale of 1600)
ACT: 25 (scale of 36)

Using a concordance table, Charlise finds that a 25 on the ACT is equivalent to a 1210 on the SAT. Since she scored a 1310 on her diagnostic SAT, her starting SAT score is considerably higher than her starting ACT score. This suggests she should pursue the SAT.

When It's Not So Clear Cut

Sometimes, the differences between a student’s diagnostic scores are negligible, and it doesn’t much matter which test he or she chooses to pursue. Other times, a student scores notably higher on one of the exams, but strongly prefers the structure of the other. Still others, the scores on both exams are about equal, but the student’s potential to raise one of them is much higher. For example, consider the following scenario.

Jack takes a diagnostic ACT and a diagnostic SAT. His composite scores are as follows.

SAT: 1140
ACT: 24

The concordance tables reveal that these scores are essentially similar. However, Jack’s section score breakdown on both exams looks like this.

ACT (composite score is the average of the four section scores)

English: 20
Math: 27
Reading: 24
Science: 25

SAT (composite score is the sum of the section scores)

Reading + Writing & Language: 510
Math: 630

Depending on Jack’s strengths and weaknesses across certain question types, he may well have a greater chance of significantly improving his ACT score. Why? His lowest score on the ACT is the English, which sits at a 20. At this score point, Jack likely missed many questions that can be gained back in the future through learning simple rules—like how to properly use different types of punctuation—and understanding how to recognize predictable question types. If he puts in serious work, he could dramatically raise his English score. Moreover, Jack’s other scores—which are solid mid-range numbers—could be bolstered by focusing on middle- and upper-level difficulty questions, honing specific strategies, and taking timed practice sections. In contrast, Jack’s SAT scores are highly disparate; given the unique challenges the SAT Reading and Writing & Language sections present, this split could require much more work to level out.

And yet, another student in Jack’s shoes might decide to go the other way: maybe he or she is looking for a score in the 1200s, and simply focusing on one score (i.e., the weaker Reading + Writing & Language score) is more appealing. It all depends on the individual student’s goals, strengths, weaknesses, work ethic, and time management.

While diagnostics are helpful most of the time, they can occasionally lead you in the wrong direction. The good news is that you're not absolutely tied to the first test you end up choosing. If you begin preparing for the ACT, for example, and see that it's not going as well as planned, you have the option of switching to the SAT to see how that goes. You're in control.

Don't Stress — There's Help

All this might seem uncomfortably ambiguous. This is why it makes sense to speak with someone knowledgeable (say, the folks at Method Test Prep, or a school counselor) to help figure it all out. For many students, there may be other factors in play: the school may offer a school day SAT or ACT exam to all juniors, free of direct cost; a student in need of testing accommodations may receive them on one test but not on the other; the testing dates for one exam might be more ideal than the dates for the other. 

In all, remember this: by taking diagnostic exams in efforts to discover the best test for you, you'll position yourself for greater test prep success. Seizing the opportunity early on will help you move through your standardized college testing as seamlessly as possible.