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ACT Versus SAT: Popular Doesn’t Mean Better

Introduced to the U.S. in 1926, the Schorlastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is one of the most well-known standardised tests. Its rival test, the American College Testing (ACT), was introduced in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT. Both tests serve the same purpose as standard tests for admission to U.S. colleges or universities. Practically all schools will accept the scores of both tests, so it is extremely unlikely to find an American college that has a particular preference for either test.

For decades, the SAT has been the dominant college entrance exam in the U.S., likely due to its being older and more established of the two. However, over the past decade, the ACT has been gaining substantial popularity, and in 2011, it narrowly surpassed the SAT by fewer than 2000 test-takers out of about 1.66 million who took each exam.

Typically, the ACT was thought of as the test you would take if you lived in the Southern or Midwestern states, as this is where it has been the most popular. If you lived on the east or west coasts or were applying to highly selective colleges there, you took the SAT. This may have led to the SAT being generally regarded as the more prestigious test, but there is no truth to this mentality because as mentioned earlier, neither is preferred during the admissions process.

Should I take Both SAT and ACT?

Experts say to take both tests if given the opportunity, and many students do indeed take both, submitting the higher relative score or both scores. However, not everyone has time or money to prepare for both.

Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College, states that “since it’s a choice you can make [which one to take], it has the feeling of being a significant choice, fraught with implication, but I don’t think it matters…either is fine with us”.

So if you’re choosing between taking the SAT and ACT test, it’s really down to personal preference, whichever you think is the easiest.

Due to the differing style and formatting of the two tests, the majority of educators believe that each test is suited to a different type of student. The general consensus seems to be that the SAT focuses heavily on critical reasoning and problem-solving, containing many nuanced, tricky questions.

Therefore, it is thought that those who are naturally bright and good at problem-solving score higher on the SAT. The ACT, on the other hand, is regarded as largely curriculum-based, more closely paralleling coursework taken at school, with questions perceived to be considerably more straightforward. As such, it is thought that students who are hard workers and study effectively score better on the ACT exam, even if they don’t have great natural abilities.

Internationally, the SAT is still by far the most popular test for undergraduate admission to U.S. schools. Last year, over 200,000 students took the SAT in over 175 countries outside the U.S. The number who took ACT was probably just in the tens of thousands. China especially has seen a surge in test-takers in the past few years.

There are no test centres for the SAT in mainland China, so Chinese students travel to Hong Kong or Singapore to take the test. However, this has since changed as the SAT is now being offered online.

It is estimated that in 2012, upwards of 30,000 mainland Chinese traveled to either Hong Kong or Singapore to take the SAT test, along with thousands of Singaporean students as well. The numbers for the ACT, however, are greatly dwarfed by comparison. The SAT has over a thousand test centers worldwide, whereas the ACT has just over 400.

One reason for ACT’s lower popularity internationally is that ACT Inc. hasn’t traditionally focused its marketing efforts abroad. Many Singaporeans opt for the SAT simply because it is the most popular, placing much emphasis on its renown, but most choose SAT simply because they are not fully aware of the alternative, ACT.

“No one’s really taking it, only because they don’t know what it is”, says Sam Hwang, CEO of New Pathway Education and Technology Group, a company based in Beijing that offers tutoring for American standard tests.

For whatever reason Singaporean students dismiss ACT, they could be missing out on something that is potentially more suited to their individual learning style.

Both tests require a mastery of the English language, but the SAT is considered to be more “English-centric” making it less suited to students for whom English is a second language. While two-thirds of the SAT comes from English sections, only half of the ACT sections are purely language-based. Student Courtney Reamer, for example, says that she “changed to ACT because it doesn’t have sentence completion and that was my biggest weakness. I don’t need to memorize thousands of words”.

The science section of the ACT has also appealed to many students. ACT spokesman Ed Colby says that “many students tell us it reminds them of the types of tests they are used to taking in school, so there may be a greater comfort level there”. And according to Jon Erickson, president of ACT’s education division, “the ACT is tied very much to subject level and is more conducive to international education”.

This is not to assert the ACT as a no-brainer choice over the SAT. While the former is generally regarded as being having somewhat easier questions than the latter, there is shorter time allotted to complete each section. This increases its overall difficulty, placing both tests on par with each other.

Again, the choice depends on the individual test-taker to try out practices for both and see which feels like a more comfortable experience. Many may still find they prefer the SAT test.

So if you are considering taking the SAT, it may be worth giving the ACT a thought as well. In Singapore, the SAT is available 6 times a year at 6 different test centers, and the ACT is available 5 times a year at 3 different test centers. You can find out more by visiting or

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