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SAT vs ACT—Which Should You Take?

The ACT and the SAT are nationally-recognized standardized tests, required for graduation by some school systems and by many colleges for admission. All colleges accept scores from both testing pro-grams and, therefore, students are free to choose whichever suits them the best. Some colleges even make scholarship decisions using admitted students’ test results. Historically, the two exams have been quite different in format and content. More recently, however, the College Board woke up to the reality that the ACT system far outpaced them in global popularity, motivating them to go through a significant overhaul and creating a new (and improved?) format in 2016. Ironically, this redesign made the SAT more similar to the ACT than ever before. So how do they really compare?

Both have similar sections that appear in a specific order; both offer an optional essay whose score is not included with the total score (check your likely colleges’ essay requirements); and neither have any guessing penalty. The ACT takes nearly three hours without the Writing and 3 hours 35 minutes with; the SAT lasts 3 hours or 3 hours 50 minutes with the Es-say. The ACT costs $46 without the Writing and $62.50 with; the SAT costs $47.50 without the Essay and $64.50 if taken with the Essay. The ACT is scored from 1-36 and the SAT score range is from 400-1600. And now some more specific details about the differences:

MATH: The SAT offers more time for you to complete each question within all sections of the test. The SAT Math Calculator section allows nearly 30 seconds more per question, so if you hate being rushed, especially in math, the SAT might be a better choice. If, however, you struggle to solve math problems without a calculator, the ACT could be a better option, but if you are confident in your calculations and can work quickly, go for the SAT. Both the ACT and SAT Math sections emphasize algebra; ACT Math is comprised of 35%-45% geometry, while in the SAT Math section it comprises only 10%. The ACT also tests matrices, graphs of trigonometry functions, and logarithms. If you are solid in algebra and data analysis, the SAT is a good choice, but for trig functions and geometry, consider the ACT. The SAT also provides you with math formulas while the ACT does not. On the ACT, Math counts for 1/4 of your total score. On the SAT it counts for 1/2 of your score. This means that a lower math score on the ACT won’t impact your overall score as much as a low SAT math score.Both have many multiple choice Math questions but the ACT gives 5 possible answers, the SAT only offers 4 - a bonus for those who need to make an educated guess.


The ACT has a Science section, whereas the SAT has none. You will find a science-based reading passage on the SAT as well as scientific graphs and tables in the math section, but if you love science, the ACT might be a better choice.


Questions that require careful analysis of a text are required far more on the SAT than on the ACT. Responses emphasize evidence gleaned from the provided text. ACT Reading questions are always unrelated to one another. The SAT Reading questions follow a clear chronological order relative to the provided text. ACT Reading questions are in random order. For some, this makes the SAT Reading questions much easier to follow and answer, and can often save you time.


Both tests offer one single optional es-say. The SAT requires you to read a text and provide an analysis of the author’s argument, using evidence from the text and offering reasoning in sup-port. Your opinion is not requested.The ACT asks you to read a short text about a specific issue and then provide an analytical opinion of the views ex-pressed. Your opinion is valued in your response. If you have strong reading and comprehension skills, you might well prefer the SAT. Those skilled in comparing and contrasting different viewpoints, and who possess some solid personal opinions, might find the ACT better suited to their skills.

How do you choose which is best for you? Take both tests under standard test conditions! There are many concordance tables now online that you can use to analyze your results in order to determine which suits you the best. Then practice, practice, and practice some more. Your results may or may not be perfect, but your best efforts will always be rewarded with great results.

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