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Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

ACT or SAT??
Which One Should You Take?

SAT                                                                            ACT


Why Take It

Colleges use SAT scores for admissions and merit-based scholarships.

Colleges use ACT scores for admissions and merit-based scholarships.

Test Structure

  • Math
  • Reading
  • Writing and Language

Essay (Optional)

  • Math
  • Reading
  • English
  • Science

Essay (Optional)


  • 3 hours (without essay)
  • 3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)
  • 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)
  • 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)


5 reading passages

4 reading passages



1 science section testing your critical thinking skills (not your specific science knowledge)



  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra I & II
  • Geometry, Trigonometry and Data Analysis


  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra I & II
  • Geometry and Trigonometry


Some math questions don't allow you to use a calculator.

You can use a calculator on all math questions.


Optional. The essay will test your comprehension of a source text.

Optional. The essay will test how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues.

How It's Scored

Scored on a scale of 400–1600

Scored on a scale of 1–36


1. Pick the exam that suits you best: Research is the first step in choosing which standardized assessment is right for you. If a school on your list prefers one test over the other, then it is essential to focus your efforts accordingly.

If you have yet to narrow your college search, then you should focus on determining which test would allow you to excel most. Taking both tests is rarely the best option. They differ enough that your time spent studying for one will not likely improve your score on the other.

It is a more efficient use of time and resources to focus on maximizing your score on just one of them. An excellent result from one test will outweigh merely good scores on both of them.

2. Assess your critical thinking skills and overall knowledge: One of the differences between the two exams is that the SAT primarily assesses reasoning ability, while the ACT focuses more on strict knowledge. Of course, there is some crossover in material.

Both tests, for example, have a math section and both require a solid foundation in geometry and algebra. The SAT is more likely to include story problems and creative application of the basic rules of geometry. The ACT, by contrast, tends to be more straightforward.

Additionally, the ACT includes basic trigonometry among the math questions. The main difference becomes one of problem-solving versus a wider range of tested concepts.

In the English section, the SAT places a greater emphasis on reading comprehension and vocabulary. In fact, it could be said that the SAT is notorious for its emphasis on vocabulary, to the extent that some of its study guides exist solely to focus on helping students get up to speed.

The reading comprehension portions of the SAT also present some challenging time management issues due to the length of the passages and the difficulty of some of the associated questions.

Although the ACT includes a reading comprehension section as well, it focuses more on grammar and syntax. As in the math sections, the ACT is more a test of knowledge than of reasoning and problem-solving.

3. Factor in your science skills: The final difference is that the ACT includes a section on science – a subject that is entirely absent from the SAT. For students with a good background in high school-level biology, earth science and physics concepts, this can be an opportunity to shine.

Furthermore, the ACT requires interpretation of graphs and charts, as well as knowledge of the proper construction of scientific hypotheses. The broader range of topics, however, can make studying for the test that much more challenging for students who do not already have a good footing in the subjects.

4. One of the best options for a student deciding which test to take is to take practice exams for both, either online or from a professional prep book. Be sure to follow the exams' formats as closely as possible.

Complete each test in one sitting while observing the appropriate time limits and other rules. Most students are able to do very well on the SAT when they have unlimited time to consider their answers – the time limits are an inevitably large part of the overall challenge.

When comparing your scores, look at the percentile results. Remember that raw scores – the number of correct or incorrect answers – matter only relative to the results of other students.

If your practice scores on each test land you in a comparable percentile, focus on the test that feels more natural to you. In almost all cases, however, your goal should be to center your efforts on the one test that plays to your strengths the most.



Don’t have time to take two practice tests?

  1. Grab a copy of both tests. You can find free copies of the New SAT and a free copy of the ACT online.
  2. Spend an hour looking at each test (including its rules for each section, its format, and its problems) and see which one you like best. I’ve never had a student that was neutral on this issue. Most students love the SAT and hate the ACT or vice versa.
  3. Start prepping and focus on the test you like the most.


Six Reasons You Might Prefer the SAT

Take the New SAT If You...

  1. Panic when faced with time limits

One of the most noticeable differences between the redesigned SAT and the ACT is the amount of time per question—you have much more of it on the SAT. This doesn't actually make the SAT easier, since its actual questions tend to be harder, but it does mean that the ACT feels like more of a time crunch than the SAT

As such, doing well on the ACT requires calm in the face of time limits. If you struggle to move through material quickly or tend to panic, you'll likely do better with the SAT.

  1.  Can’t stand the idea of not getting to every question

On the SAT, you have enough time to get to most of the questions, as long as you use it wisely. On the ACT, you probably won't finish all of the sections unless you're scoring a 30 or above. 

If you have an obsessive need to answer every single question, you should stick to the SAT.

  1.  Have a hard time spotting details when you read

SAT reading questions almost always give you the line number where you can find the relevant information.  Even if they don't give you the exact location, the questions are in order, so it's rarely difficult to find information in the passage.

ACT reading questions, on the other hand, are randomly ordered and frequently don't give line numbers, so finding specific details in the passage is one of the trickiest parts. If you struggle with retaining or finding details, you will probably prefer the new SAT.

  1. Struggle with geometry

ACT math has over three times as many geometry questions as the math section on the redesigned SAT. Plus, for the ACT, you need to memorize all the formulas, while on the SAT you're given them at the beginning of the section.

If you have a very hard time with geometry, consider taking the new SAT.

  1.  Want to encounter as little science as possible

The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not. If you dislike science or struggle with quantitative thinking, you will probably prefer the SAT.

The redesigned SAT does include science questions in each of its three sections,  so there's no way to escape science entirely.  Nonetheless, struggling with science will have less of an effect on your score on the new SAT than it will on the ACT.

  1.  Excel at writing analytical essays in English class

The new SAT essay asks you to read and analyze a persuasive essay, much like you might for a class assignment. If you like English class, you'll almost certainly prefer the new SAT essay to the ACT one.

That being said, neither essay effects your overall score, so a preference for one or the other shouldn't play a major role in your decision between the two tests.

Six Reasons You Might Prefer the ACT

Take the ACT If You...

1.Struggle with vocabulary

Although it no longer has sentence completions questions, the redesigned SAT still tests more challenging vocabulary on both the reading and writing sections. It also has harder passages on the reading section and more vocab questions overall.

The ACT is the better test if you want to avoid higher-level words like "satiated" and "apprehensive" and older passages with challenging language.

2. Can't always explain how you know an answer is correct

One of the big changes to the SAT is the addition of evidence questions on the reading section. These questions ask you to point to the part of the passage that supports your answer to another question—#14 is an example:

Evidence questions aren't as novel as they might seem at first, since, in theory, you should always be able to point to the support for your answer in the passage. But if this is a skill you really struggle with, consider taking the ACT instead.

3.Are intimidated by doing math without a calculator

The new SAT has a no-calculator section, so if the idea of doing math without a calculator has you completely freaked out, you may want to stick to the ACT.

However, the no-calculator section really doesn't require any complicated calculations. In fact, all of the math questions on both tests can be done without a calculator, though some are rather challenging. 

The question is really whether you feel comfortable doing some basic calculations by hand. If not, the new SAT will be a challenge for you.

4.Prefer that different topics be tested in different sections

One of the goals of the SAT redesign is to integrate important skills across all three sections, so there's more overlap between the different sections than on the ACT.

One key example of this new policy is the presence of quantitative questions in the reading and writing sections of the new SAT. If you'd prefer to avoid this kind of concept mixing, stick with the ACT.

5. Have a solid grasp of experimental design

If you like science, and especially if you have a good understanding of how experiments are built and know the difference between independent and dependent variables, consider taking the ACT.
The ACT asks a lot of questions about experimental design while the SAT new science questions are solely focused on reading charts and graphs. A strong grasp of these concepts will give you a considerable leg up on the ACT.

6. Like to give your opinion

The ACT essay is all about arguing for your own point (unlike the new SAT essay, which is about analyzing someone else's argument). If you enjoy stating your opinion and marshaling examples to back it up, then you will probably prefer the ACT essay. Remember, however, that you may not need to take the essay at all and that, even if you do, it doesn't affect your overall score. 

Quiz: Should You Take the ACT or the New SAT?
In case you're still on the fence about which test you want to focus on, here is a handy quiz. It sums up all of the ideas above (except those relating to the optional essays) in one easy-to-use chart.
To use it, just go through and check "yes" or "no" for each question. Then tally up your answers and give yourself one point for each "yes." Scroll down for an explanation of what your score means.




Do you perform well under time pressure?



Are you okay with not answering every question on a test?



Do you struggle to explain why you think an answer is correct?



Do you have a hard time with high level vocab words?



Can you spot details in a passage without reading it closely?



Do you dread doing math without a calculator?



Do you excel at geometry?



Do you prefer each topic be tested separately?



Do you understand experimental design?



Do you like science?




Let's go through what your score means:

1-3: You're an SAT person!

If you answered "no" to most of the questions, you'll probably find the new SAT more your style. You don't mind slightly harder questions as long as you don't have to rush and don't have to cover too much material.

4-7: You can do either!

If you answered "no" and "yes" roughly the same amount, you will probably find the tests equally approachable. If you're willing to put in the time, try taking one practice test for each and see if you have a strong preference.

8-10: You'll like the ACT!

If you answered mostly "yes," then you're more of an ACT person. You don't mind moving quickly, memorizing material, or answering questions about science.



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