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Which Is Better, The SAT or The ACT? Does the ACT/SAT Difference Matter?

Your Teen asked the following experts to weigh in on the differences between the ACT vs SAT tests: William Conley, Dean of Enrollment and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins University, Eileen Blattner, Chairperson of the Guidance Department at Shaker Heights High School, and Debora Voss, Head Guidance Counselor at Westlake High School.

Do you recommend that students take both the ACT and the SAT?

Bill Conley: I think students need to control the amount and variety of their testing. There is a myth (in my view) that a student may achieve a higher score on one test over the other. From my experience, about 85% of students score comparatively the same when they take multiple SATs and ACTs. All they gain is test anxiety, while they lose many nights of good sleep and many hours on Saturdays.

Eileen Blattner: I use the percentiles from the PLAN and PSAT scores (both administered at school) to help determine which test a student should take. If the scores are similar, I suggest they take both.

Debora Voss: We suggest that our students take both.

ACT vs SAT

Are certain skills or learning styles better suited to one test over the other?

Bill Conley: I am not an expert in testing construct or styles. If I am right that 15% of students will test better on one test over the other, then something accounts for that. Bottom line: students should not over-analyze which test to take.

Eileen Blattner: I have read that a naturally smart student does well on the SAT while a hard working student with high academic performance does better on the ACT. The reformat of the SAT has helped to close the performance divide between the SAT and ACT. Still, I use their performance from the PLAN and PSAT to help decide.

When do you recommend taking the test for the first time?

Bill Conley: Students generally take the PLAN in their sophomore year and the PSAT in their junior year. I would recommend taking the ACT or SAT no earlier than January of their junior year.

Debora Voss: Anytime after January of their junior year.

How many times should a student repeat taking a test?

Bill Conley: At Hopkins, we see too many students taking the SAT or ACT more than two times, and in the vast majority of cases, the additional sittings do not increase their scores. We judge those students as obsessed and worry that they are more likely to grub for grades and be stressed during college. Given the choice, we’ll take a self-confident student.

Debora Voss: Students should take the SAT and ACT in the spring of their junior year and then repeat one of them in the fall of their senior year.

Do colleges prefer one test to the other? Are there SAT/ACT differences in evaluation?

Bill Conley: No. If a school offers either option, then either test works.

Eileen Blattner: Some of the highly selective Eastern schools prefer the SAT, but will take the ACT.

Debora Voss: The ACT is more common in the Midwest.

Has the impact of standardized testing changed in the past 25 years?

Bill Conley: In the past 25 years, many more colleges have become test-optional, allowing students the option of submitting their test results or eliminating test requirements altogether. Those, like Hopkins, which continue to require standardized tests, have not changed much. Testing is part of a holistic review process that weighs many dimensions of a candidate, with the high school transcript as the single most important measurement of predicted success while in college.

Eileen Blattner: Many more schools have dropped their testing requirements or accept the best math, best critical reading, and best writing scores from different SAT test dates. I’ve heard of one school that does that for the ACT also.

What advice would you give parents of high school students?

Bill Conley: Encourage students to:

  • Read more. Magazines, like Time or Newsweek and newspapers, like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, contain articles similarly worded to the reading passages in the test.
  • Build vocabulary through reading literature and looking up unknown words.
  • Bookmark ACT and/or College Board sites and take periodic sample tests to become familiar with the testing process.
  • My most important advice to parents is to avoid adding to their teens’ stress. Don’t say things like, “If you can get your verbal score over 650, you’ll get into this or that college.” Assume that your child already wants to do well.

Eileen Blattner: Unless a student is very independent and self-disciplined, it is very hard for them to work on their own. If possible, offer tutoring or a class to improve.

Debora Voss: A student should never walk in cold to one of these tests.

Do you want to add anything?

Eileen Blattner: Sometimes, colleges use test scores to determine athletic eligibility or scholarship eligibility.

Debora Voss: Students can be over-tested. I have seen students with five or more scores.


William Conley is the Dean of Enrollment and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He has 29 years of experience in higher education, including 18 years as the Director or Dean of Admissions.
Eileen Blattner, is the Chairperson of the Guidance Department at Shaker Heights High School in Ohio. She has been a college guidance counselor for 23 years.
Debora Voss is the Head Guidance Counselor at Westlake High School in Ohio. She has been in education for 29 years.