SAT or ACT: How to know which is best for your child

By Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

At a glance

  • Most colleges will accept either the SAT or ACT.

  • The tests measure different skills and work in different ways.

  • Your child may do better with one test than the other.

SAT or ACT? It might not seem like there’s much difference between the two college admissions tests. But, in fact, there is. And depending on your child’s learning and thinking differences, one test may be a better fit than the other.

One thing to think about is whether your child needs accommodations. To get , kids have to show documentation of a disability. And accommodations may have to appear in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan. They may be required to explain in writing how specific accommodations can help address their limitations.

Most students work with their school to apply for accommodations. Your child will complete a consent form for the school. The school then requests accommodations on your child’s behalf. Applications may be due at the time students applies for the test — or before.

SAT

Since 2016, the SAT has focused on knowledge and skills that current research shows are most essential for college and careers. It’s designed to better capture what students have learned in class.

Kids might prefer the SAT if they:

  • Work slowly.
  • Read a lot and have a strong vocabulary. (Though the new version will shift from testing obscure words to more “collegiate” words, vocabulary is still important.)
  • Think “outside the box.” (Questions tend to test problem-solving ability rather than factual knowledge.)
  • Write well. (The essay section will be optional, but the test will still include reading and writing sections.)

The SAT’s accommodations for students with documented learning and thinking differences are generous. They include:

  • Presentation. (This includes large print, a reader, and oral presentation.)
  • Responding. (Dictation, a tape recorder, and large block answer sheets can help.)
  • Timing. (Extended time and frequent breaks are allowed.)
  • Setting. (This can mean a small group setting, special room, and adaptive equipment.)

The College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities page explains who is eligible for accommodations. It also outlines how to apply for them and how to make use of them.

ACT

The ACT leans toward testing what students learn in school instead of assessing ability. Slightly more high school students now take the ACT than the SAT.

Kids might prefer the ACT if they:

  • Work quickly.
  • Excel in math and science. (The SAT only tests math; ACT tests math and science.)
  • Prefer seeing questions like they see on school tests.
  • Struggle with essay writing. (The ACT essay is optional, but may be required by target schools.)

The ACT offers two accommodations options. Your child may choose only one:

  • National Extended Time. (This gives students up to 50% more time, with breaks.)
  • Special Testing (at school). Kids can test at school with extended time and alternate formats instead of at a test center.

Kids who get time-and-a-half for tests may need to take the test over multiple days. Other accommodations include alternate test formats like cassettes, DVDs, or a reader; a computer or scribe for essays, and alternate response modes, such as responding orally.

Visit the ACT’s Services for Students with Disabilities page for an explanation of available accommodations and directions on how to apply for them.

If standardized testing is a real challenge for your child, it’s good to know that more and more colleges are becoming test-optional. But most still require either the SAT or ACT for admission. Knowing the basic differences between the two can help your child pick the best test.

Key takeaways

  • Kids who work slowly or who have strong writing skills may prefer the SAT.

  • Kids who work quickly or who are strong in science may prefer the ACT.

  • Both tests offer accommodations, but you’ll have to apply for them.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos is a writer and editor for many national publications.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.