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How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT?

How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT? published on

How should I choose whether to take the SAT or ACT?

First things first: despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t matter to colleges whether you take the SAT or ACT. All schools accept either test, and neither test is preferred (some schools are also test-optional – check out their website admissions pages). Some schools are not accepting the SAT for students applying in 2017, because of the format changes, but this won’t be a permanent move. A few schools accept the ACT instead of subject tests, so that’s worth knowing too, before you make the decision.

Neither test is actually easier, but some suit different students differently. There are some key facts that make a difference between ACT and SAT, however. As a rule of thumb, the SAT is better for strong Math students, because half your score is Math based, compared to a quarter of your score on the ACT. The ACT is better for strong readers, because the Reading and Scientific Reasoning sections both rely heavily on fast and accurate reading comprehension. Don’t make the decision just on that basis though, there are other factors.


take the SAT or ACT questions choice decide prepare study
It’s a big choice!


Here are the factors that help my students to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT:

The ACT… The SAT…
Only asks vocabulary questions in context, and usually less than 2 per test The new SAT will not test vocabulary, except in context, like the ACT (the old SAT did).
Contains a science section – you do not have be studying science to do well on it, it’s more about drawing conclusions from information. I’d call it ‘data-based reasoning’ Contains data based questions in Math, Reading and Writing & Language (basically everywhere!).
Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end
Total test time is 3 hours 25 minutes Total test time is 3 hours 30 minutes
Extensive documentation needed to get testing accommodations such as extra time Accomodations often approved automatically based on what you get at school
Has one math section Has two math sections, making up half your score
Essay is 40 mins to discuss a “current issues” type topic, based on perspectives given (new structure as of Sept 2015) Essay is 50 minutes to analyse a persuasive text.
One math section, for which you can use a calculator Two math sections, one without a calculator
Requires you to work very quickly for the reading and scientific reasoning sections Has a much more generous time limit for reading comprehension, although you do have an extra passage to read. Also the passages are slightly harder – of the 5 passages on the SAT, usually 2 or more were written before 1900.
Contains more curriculum based math – some of the questions will look more familiar to you Contains much more data/statistical math than the ACT.
No penalty for getting wrong answers, so you should fill in every circle on your bubble sheet. Also no penalty (note that this is a change from the old SAT).


You might already have an idea of which test you prefer, based on reading about the difference between ACT and SAT. To really know for sure, you should get a practice test for each, and take the SAT or ACT under timed conditions and compare them. Diagnostic tests work for this too, but they are often made by prep companies, so they are variable in quality, and never as good as the real thing. They also may be shorter than the real test, meaning that you’re less likely to feel the test fatigue that you do when your take the SAT or ACT for real.

If you’ve done this, and got results from both tests, you can read about how to compare them here.


Here are the main points I would ask my students to consider when choosing whether to take the SAT or ACT:

  • Did you prefer the timing of the ACT or SAT? You can only really know the answer to this question if you’ve done the full tests. For the ACT, the reading and scientific reasoning sections (third and fourth in order) must be completed at a fast pace. This means that you’re working faster at the end of the test, which may not be ideal for you. On the SAT, the reading is first, and takes 65 minutes. Math is at the end of the test.
  • Do students in your area mostly take the SAT or ACT? In some places, most students take the ACT, whereas in other areas, it’s the SAT. If, because of where you live, you have easier access to help on one test or the other (tutors, prep programs run at your school, or just friends to ask for advice), that is important to consider in your decision.
  • Which test did you enjoy more? You’ll do better on the test you feel more confident with. You’ll also be more motivated to study, especially if you’re doing all your prep by yourself.
  • Math represents half the SAT, but only a quarter of the ACT. If you’re a strong mathematician but aren’t so good at reading fast, the SAT is a good test for you. If you can read fast, but your math isn’t so strong, the ACT is better for you. ACT reading is quite well correllated with ACT science (as opposed to science scores being similar to math scores, as you might expect).
  • Writing and Language (SAT) is virtually identical to English (ACT). So you have to do that regardless – it shouldn’t be a factor in your decision to take the ACT or the SAT!
  • Although the essay portion represents a big difference between ACT and SAT, I wouldn’t make it a factor in your choice. Usually essay scores do not matter as much as the test score itself, because universities have lots of other ways to assess your writing ability.


Don’t spend too much time picking a test. Some people just write both to see which they do better on. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just takes more time. If you are going to decide on one test, bear in mind that the ideal timescale for prep for either test is 6 months or more, so make sure you’ve made your decision at least 6 months before you plan to write the test for the first time. I said first time because I strongly believe you should write a standardized test more than once to maximize your score. Here’s why.

Good luck in your choice!! Comment below and let me know how you decided whether to take the ACT or the SAT.