Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

Not sure which standardized test to take? This guide will walk you through the key differences between the SAT and ACT, help you identify the test that aligns best with your strengths, and offer tips for preparation in the growing “test-optional” trend.

Understanding the SAT and ACT: Key Differences

Both tests assess your readiness for college-level work, but with some distinct differences:

Content: The SAT focuses more on reasoning and analytical skills, while the ACT emphasizes direct application of knowledge.

Structure: The SAT has three sections: Reading, Writing & Language, and Math (non-calculator and calculator). The ACT has four: English, Reading, Math (calculator-permitted), and Science.

Timing: The SAT gives more time per question, but has a shorter overall test duration. The ACT has less time per question but spreads it across a longer test. SAT has 98 questions with an overall duration of 134 minutes (1 minute 22 seconds per question) while ACT has 215 questions with an  overall duration of 175 minutes (49 seconds per question). Take a glance at its comparison. 

Features SATACT
FormatDigital everywherePaper in most places
LengthAbout 2 hoursAbout 3 hours
Timing98 questions / 134 minutes (1 minute 22 seconds per question)215 questions / 175 minutes (49 seconds per question)
Reading PassagesShort with one question eachLong with several questions each
Separate science sectionNo (science reasoning is measured across test sections)Yes
Built-in math reference sheetYesNo
Built-in graphing calculatorYesNo
*Based on publicly released ACT information.

Scoring: Each test scores their sections on a different scale:

The SAT consists of two main sections: the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section, and the Math section. Each section is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points, with a total possible score of 1600. The EBRW section includes the Reading and Writing & Language portions, while the Math section covers both the calculator and no-calculator sections.

The ACT is divided into four main sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Each section is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, and the average of these four section scores is calculated to determine the composite score. The composite score ranges from 1 to 36 as well.

Now, let’s dive deeper into each section:

Reading: Both assess reading comprehension and vocabulary, but the SAT passages tend to be denser and more analytical, while the ACT leans towards factual information.

Writing & Language/English: Both test your grammar, usage, and mechanics, but the SAT Writing section also includes an essay. The ACT English focuses solely on multiple-choice questions.

Math: Both test foundational math skills with increasing difficulty. The SAT has two Math sections: one where calculator use is allowed and one where it is not allowed.

  • SAT Math (No Calculator): This section of the SAT does not permit the use of a calculator. It assesses a student’s ability to solve math problems using basic arithmetic, algebraic concepts, and critical reasoning skills.
  • SAT Math (Calculator): The other Math section of the SAT does allow the use of a calculator. This section includes more complex problem-solving questions that may involve higher-level mathematical concepts, including trigonometry and advanced algebra.
  • The ACT also has two Math sections, both of which permit the use of a calculator. The ACT Math section allows the use of a calculator throughout the entire section. It assesses a student’s understanding of various mathematical concepts, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and basic statistics. The calculator sections of ACT include more advanced concepts.

Science (ACT only): This section evaluates scientific reasoning and analysis of data through graphs, charts, and experiments.

Rather watch than read? We got you.

SAT vs. ACT: Which Test Is Right for You?

Consider these factors:

Play to Your Strengths: Do you excel at analyzing complex passages and reasoning through problems (SAT), or do you prefer straightforward questions testing your knowledge base (ACT)? Do you thrive under time pressure (ACT) or prefer more time per question (SAT)?

Take Practice Tests: Take sample tests for both and see which format feels more comfortable and which test you score higher on. You can use an online calculator to standardize and compare your two scores to determine which test better suits you. Remember, there’s no universal “best” test! Choosing the one that aligns with your strengths and preferences will likely lead to a higher score.

Preparing for the SAT and ACT: Study Tips and Resources

Preparation is key! Here are some tips:

Start early: Give yourself ample time to familiarize yourself with the format and content.

Take practice tests: Regularly simulate the test experience to understand pacing and identify areas for improvement. Make sure that each time you take a practice test, you actively work on the concepts you missed before taking another test. 

Utilize official resources: Both the College Board (SAT) and ACT offer official study guides, practice tests, and online resources for free.

Seek professional help: Consider tutoring or test prep courses if you need personalized guidance.

Going Test Optional: When SAT/ACT Scores Aren’t Required

The good news? More colleges are going “test-optional,” meaning they don’t require SAT/ACT scores for admission. This trend empowers students to focus on more personal aspects of their application, like essays and extracurricular activities. 

Research thoroughly: 

Each college has its own “test-optional” policy. Some might explicitly state they consider all applications holistically, regardless of submitted scores. Others might mention that strong scores can be advantageous, or even required. Carefully research the specific college’s stance on testing.

Should you submit your scores?

The decision of whether to submit your test scores, even at a test-optional school, can be confusing. So, what should you do?

Submitting a strong score can boost your application. If your SAT/ACT score falls within the 50th percentile or above for the college you’re applying to, submitting it can significantly strengthen your application. It demonstrates academic readiness and aligns with the expectations of other applicants who do submit scores. 

Additionally, submitting a strong score can help offset any weaknesses in other areas of your application, such as GPA or extracurricular activities. Ultimately, while test scores are important, they are just one piece of the admissions puzzle, and colleges consider a variety of factors when making their decisions.

Don’t have a strong score? 

If your score falls below the 50th percentile of the distribution of scores of accepted students for the college, you’re better off not submitting it. Colleges might question your academic preparedness compared to other applicants.

If you choose to go test-optional, you can make up for it by strengthening other parts of your application: maintain a strong GPA, craft compelling college essays, participate in meaningful extracurricular activities, and showcase your unique talents and strengths.

Prioritize Application Factors That Will Help You Stand Out

If your scores aren’t improving and your deadlines are ticking closer, prioritize the parts of your application that can truly make a difference. What do we mean? Instead of spending hours studying for a score you won’t even submit, pour your time and energy into crafting strong college essays! 

Admissions officers are looking for the real and full you in your application. To effectively convey your true self, it is essential to engage in deep self-reflection and strategy. Take the time to understand your own experiences, values, and aspirations.

Remember that your application is more than just a list of accomplishments. It’s about strategically presenting your experiences and values to create a cohesive and impactful profile. Avoid scattering your efforts across various activities or achievements. Instead, focus on building a cohesive application that highlights your strengths and aligns with your goals. By demonstrating a clear sense of purpose and coherence in your application, you enhance your chances of standing out and capturing the attention of admissions officers.

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