09/02/2014 01:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2014

Why, When and How to Choose Between the SAT and ACT

When I was in the fifth grade, I began playing the clarinet. Five years later, my clarinet teacher told me that, given my reflexes and mouth shape, I was better suited to the trumpet.

Sure, I was a solid clarinet player. I ranked well in solo competitions, was first chair in my freshman year band, and had ascended to an audition-based band as a sophomore. But, I would never be a truly magnificent clarinet player.

At the beginning of your work on the college admissions tests, the first thing you should do is an experiment.

Take an official practice test of both the SAT and the ACT in order to choose one to focus on.

By taking a practice test of each, you will experience the different styles and formatting. If you score significantly better on one than the other and/or prefer the way one is designed, that's an indication that you are better suited to that test. Better to find out now than five months from now.

Furthermore, while the SAT and ACT aren't in direct conflict with each other stylistically -- unlike the clarinet and trumpet, which require opposite embouchures -- time spent bouncing between the two is in conflict with your ability to focus on one. The more experience you have with a test -- either test -- the better you will master it.

If it turns out that your scores on the two tests are comparable, then you can simply choose which test you liked better (or flip a coin) and move forward.

Give the decision-making process it's due diligence, but don't overthink it.

Your time is best spent prepping for the test to which you are better suited. Not the other test. Not both tests. Not neither test, as you are caught up deciding between the two.

If you plan to work with a tutor, involve him or her in the test selection process. And, if you haven't already chosen a test, make sure that the tutor is experienced and comfortable working with both the SAT and ACT. After all, you want to choose the test that is better for you, not for your tutor.

In a process notorious for eliciting fear and confusion, you can use the tools available to you to discover the path of least resistance, allowing you to move forward with greater confidence and certainty.


Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach. She works with students from across the country on a mindful approach to test prep.

For a limited time, Erika is offering students free introductory SAT and ACT coaching sessions. Find out more at