SAT or ACT: take a test to find out which is best

High school is confusing enough. Having to decide whether to take the ACT or SAT is just one more stress. Yet hundreds of Islanders face this befuddling decision every year.

Experts say to take both and see which test yields the best results. Nearly every college in the United States accepts SAT or ACT scores, according to Mercer Island High School college counselor MJ Hillstrom. Many schools take both. So how do students choose? Well, the majority take a pre-test.

Mercer Island High School offers its students the chance to take the practice ACT and practice SAT their sophomore and junior year. Since both tests differ significantly — the former is curriculum-based, while the latter tests a student’s ability to problem solve — some teenagers will succeed more with one test than the other.

“It’s really a confusion because those two tests are apples and oranges,” Hillstrom said. “There are no tricks or twists in the ACT. They’re just asking what you know. The SAT is an ability-based test — it tests your ability to problem solve. There are lots of tricky questions there.”

This is why, the counselor added, “there is a whole industry on SAT preparation out there.”

Indeed, the majority of MIHS students do enroll in some type of SAT or ACT prep course. For many students, these preparation classes help dissect the test, thereby making it easier to understand.

MIHS senior Will Voit said that most of his peers took both the ACT and the SAT, as did he.

“Most of my friends took them both to see which test they score higher on. In my case, I sent both of my scores to colleges, because they’re fairly comparable,” the senior said.

Many college admissions staff members will look at both scores to get a better picture of how the student fares on each test. The ACT differs from the SAT because it offers a science section. This can either harm or help a student.

“Some of the more techy kids prefer the ACT because of this section. But for most people, [the science section] actually brings down their grades,” Voit said.

As part of the “prep” process, students take practice or “mock” SAT and ACT exams, which are scored for review. Hillstrom said that it behooves students to compare their percentiles — rather than actual score — for the ACT and SAT to truly understand which test they are better suited for.

“I recommend that students take the practice ACT in their sophomore year, then take the PSAT in their junior year and compare percentiles. If one test is drastically above the other, they might want to hone in on that particular test,” said Hillstrom.

Asked which test is most popular with Islander students, Hillstrom gave a list of numbers from the past two years: In 2009, 308 students took the SAT, while 197 took the ACT. In 2008, about the same number took the SAT. However, 210 students took the ACT.

In general, the majority of students prioritize the SAT test; most likely because it is the most “traditional” of the two. Yet Hillstrom points out that this is changing. Some colleges, in fact, no longer require either test.

“There is a fast growing trend — and families should take advantage of this — among small liberal arts colleges to not accept any test at all. They feel that standardized tests are not a fair portrayal of a student’s ability [to do well in college],” she said, adding that more information on these schools can be found at

But until the day that no U.S. college requires the SAT or ACT, students are still pressed to succeed in one or the other. For most, this means plenty of practice. And mock tests, as the trend appears, seem to be the best way to do this.

Parents seeking more information on the SAT and ACT can contact Hillstrom at 236-3364. For more information for students preparing for college, go to and read Joan Franklin’s columns, “On College.”

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