Before getting into the specifics of how best to decide which test to take, there is one important point that is worth noting. There is an assumption that students will be inherently better at one test than the other but that is often not the case. Most kids score relatively similarly on both tests, and this supports the notion that the SAT and ACT are actually more similar than they are different and that both are testing the same kinds of abilities. That said, some students do score markedly better on one of the tests, so it certainly does make sense to see if your child is one of the people for whom one test is clearly much better than the other.
Test prep companies and even some private tutors produce SAT/ACT diagnostics that include a conglomeration of made-up SAT and ACT questions and that attempt to predict which test would be better for any given student. However, these should not be trusted for a whole host of reasons. First of all the questions are usually not “official” questions written by the testmakers, which is reason enough not to trust them. More importantly, however, these diagnostic tools are just a sample of questions from both tests and there is almost no way to ensure that they are equal in terms of level of difficulty or in terms of the proper distribution of questions for each test. So it may be that the ACT questions on the diagnostic are on average a little easier than the SAT questions. Naturally the student will probably perform a little better on the ACT part of the diagnostic leading to the potentially erroneous impression that the ACT is a better test for that student.
So the only real way to know if there is a clear winner between the SAT and ACT is to do an official practice test for each and then compare the scores and experiences. Official tests can be found for free on the testmakers’ websites www.collegeboard.org and www.actstudent.org. An SAT/ACT score comparison chart is available CLICK HERE. If one score is considerably higher than the other than the student should probably go with that test. If the scores are pretty close, however, it might be useful to consider the student’s actual experience taking the test and his or her comfortability, since the initial diagnostic does not necessarily speak to what that person’s ultimate potential will be on the test. For example, the student may be completely thrown by the time pressure of the ACT and fail to finish most of the sections but at the same time believe that with some practice he or she would be fine with the time allotted for each section. Or the student may be a little more comfortable initially with the slightly more straightforward presentation of questions on some of the ACT sections, but absolutely hate the time constraints of the test and believe that ultimately the SAT would be a better test for them.
If the result from one of the practice tests is clearly superior, obviously it makes sense to focus on that test. If, however, the results are pretty similar or if there is some indecision about which test to study for, I generally recommend studying for the SAT for a number of reasons: