By Lucia Tyler Ph.D., Certified Educational Planner---Tyler Admissions Consulting

Standardized test scores are a key part of the college application process. But how should students decide whether to take the SAT or the ACT?

To help choose between these two tests, students should become familiar with the differences between them. They should also take some practice SAT and ACT tests to see whether they score better on one or the other. 

These sample tests can be accessed through guidebooks, published by the companies that run the tests: The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide. Students should then spend at least six weeks studying for the test they feel they will perform better on.

As they try the SAT and ACT, here are some of major differences students will find between them:

1. The ACT Uses More Direct Questions
The questions on the ACT are more straightforward and direct and are similar to tests given in high school. Questions on the SAT, however, are trickier and require students to integrate various aspects of their knowledge base. The SAT is more like college testing.

2. The ACT Includes a Science Section
The ACT has a science section, while the SAT does not. The science portion of the ACT, however, does not require students to answer specific questions from memory about biology, chemistry or physics. What it does is ask students to interpret data from graphics and charts to extract the answer to a question. 

3. The SAT has more difficult vocabulary
The SAT has sentence completion questions where you must supply the word from choices given.  In addition, the use of vocabulary in reading selections is more advanced even though the paragraphs are often shorter than those on the ACT.

4. The Essay is Optional on the ACT
While the essay section is required on the SAT, writing an essay is optional on the ACT. Students should sign up for the writing section on the ACT, however, because many colleges and universities require it.

5. The ACT Math Section Includes Trigonometry
The ACT includes more advanced mathematical concepts, including trigonometry, while the SAT doesn't go beyond algebra. Another difference is that the SAT gives students the mathematical formulas, while the ACT expects students to have them in memory.

6. Pace of the Test
The ACT has five long sections, while the SAT has 10 short sections. The ACT moves faster, while the SAT gives students more time per question. The ACT takes 3 hours and 25 minutes; the SAT takes 3 hours and 45 minutes.

7. The SAT is Super-scored
Many schools super-score the SAT, which means that they take students' best verbal and math scores and put them together. A much smaller group of colleges super-scores the ACT. Most colleges use a composite score for all of the sections. A perfect score on the SAT is 2400 (800 each for the math, verbal and essay), and 36 for the ACT.
Whichever test students choose, they should start taking the SAT or ACT in the winter of junior year. I recommend that students take the test each test once and then take the preferred test an additional time or two. Statistics from Princeton Review and Peterson’s Publishing show that after taking the tests three times, most students show little improvement in their score. In addition, some colleges frown upon repeated testing beyond three sessions.

8.  Score Choice
Students sometimes worry about doing badly on a test that is sent to colleges if they know that they suffer from text anxiety. Currently, only the ACT has true score choice for all colleges. The student has control over which ACT scores to send to colleges.

The SAT has a complicated policy on score choice.  For a fee, you can choose score choice and select the SAT scores to send.  However, a group of highly selective colleges will ask to see all of your SAT scores regardless of your score choice selection.