I like to ask my students, “What have you heard? Which test is easier, the SAT or ACT?” Most students say they’ve heard the ACT is easier, though a few say the SAT is easier. Some say the tests test different things, while others give a qualified response like “The ACT is more about critical thinking.”
None of these answers are right, and I don’t blame my students for not knowing. For some reason, even though the correct answer is pretty simple, the truth just isn’t out there. So here it is: in terms of difficulty, the two tests are exactly the same. They mathematically have to be. To understand why, you need to know a little bit about the way these tests are scored:
SAT or ACT: scaled scoring and you
The SAT and the ACT are each scored on a scale. The short version for now is that neither your SAT or ACT score is based on how many questions you get right. Your score is based on how many questions you get right relative to your competition.
Although the ACT and SAT use different scoring scales, the underlying mechanics are the same. For example, a 28 on the ACT puts you in the 90th percentile, which means that you got more questions right than 90 percent of test takers. To hit the 90th percentile on the new SAT, you need to break 1300. At the end of the day, colleges don’t actually care about numbers like “1300” or “28.” What they care about is the percentile each scaled number represents—in other words, the percentage of your competition that you beat.
Let’s pretend the urban legend is true and that the ACT has easier questions than the SAT does. What happens when you take the ACT? Well, you get easier questions, but you’re up against people who are also getting easier questions. More of your competition will get more questions right, so to break the 90th percentile, you’ll need to get even more of the questions right.
By contrast, if you take the SAT and its allegedly “harder” questions, you’ll be up against people who are facing the same challenge. Because your fellow test-takers will make more mistakes, you can get a few more questions wrong yourself and still beat 90% of the field.
As a result, it’s not the difficulty of the questions that makes one scaled test harder than another, but rather the difficulty of the competition. Thus, whether you’re taking the SAT or ACT, your competition is exactly the same—other high school students trying to go to college. Since both tests have the same competition, it is mathematically inevitable that each is equally as hard. If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation of scaled scoring check out this post.
Which is harder: winning a mile-long race or winning a hundred-meter dash? Neither is inherently harder than the other, because of course, while you can run the hundred-meter dash much more quickly, so can the people you’re racing against. That doesn’t mean you can’t prefer one race over the other, though. If you have amazing sprinting power but get tired quickly, you’ll be better—relative to your competition—at the hundred-meter dash. By contrast, you might be better than the average Joe at racing a whole mile if you have fantastic stamina.
Searching online forums or asking your older friends “which test is easier” is a complete waste of time. Instead, you need to figure out if one test or the other uniquely caters to any strengths you may have relative to your competition.
To use a simple example: math counts for half your score on the SAT but only a quarter of your score on the ACT. If you’re a math genius, then your superior skills in that arena might benefit you more—again, relative to your competition—on the SAT than on the ACT.
That said, you can take all of these speculation out of the equation by taking a practice test of each and seeing if one percentile is notably higher than the other. If you hit the 70th percentile on a practice ACT but only the 55th on a practice SAT, then for whatever reason, the ACT is the test for you. You can find free practice tests on the test makers’ websites (ACT, SAT) or by attending Kaplan’s free events.
I hope this clears up a common area of confusion and misinformation. Whether you to decide to take the SAT or ACT, go at it hard so you can dominate your competition on Test Day.
Boris loves teaching complex problems and helping students overcome their Test Day fears. He brings his sense of humor to the classroom–as well as his love of strategy board games.