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SAT vs. ACT – Which is Right for Me?

SAT vs ACT: Which is Right for Me?

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During the second half of a student’s high school career, there is much emphasis placed on college prep and selection. Part of this process includes SAT and/or ACT testing. But which test is best for you? The answer, unfortunately, is “it depends.”

There are a number of key differences that should influence your decision to take one, the other, or both tests. But for all their differences, the SAT and ACT have lots in common.

Both are aptitude tests used to establish college readiness of high school juniors and seniors. They are available to students all over America and accepted by all colleges and universities in the nation. They use numerical scoring, present questions in the most significant learning categories, and are strict, high-stress testing scenarios.

So, which test is best? Let’s look at some other factors.

The Testing Parameters

Each test has its own structure, question count, and time allotments. Neither is better or worse than the other, though you may find one is well-suited to your personal testing style.

Breaking down the SAT

The SAT was first administered in 1926 as a complement to existing college admissions evaluations. What made it different was its interest in evaluating learning potential, as opposed to knowledge. It became a reliable admissions component for elite northeast universities, and has always maintained popularity on both coasts.

While it has gone through several forms, the current SAT exam has:

  • 154 total questions
  • Three mandatory sections
  • An optional essay section
  • A test time of 3 hours (plus 50 minutes if taking the essay)
  • Scoring on a scale of 400-1600

In 2016, there were 1.69 million test takers with a  50th percentile score between 1050 and 1060.

Breaking down the ACT

In 1959, the ACT was introduced as an alternative to the SAT. Whereas the SAT tested learning potential and was valued by top universities, the ACT was designed to be an achievement test utilized by institutions in other parts of the country. Initially available only in the Midwest, the ACT has long been the default college prep exam in that part of the country.

Today’s ACT exam has:

  • 215 total questions
  • Four mandatory sections
  • An optional essay section
  • A test time of 2 hours 55 minutes (plus 40 minutes if taking the essay)
  • Composite scoring on a scale of 1-36

In 2016, there were 2.09 million test takers with a mean composite score of 20.9.

The Sections of the SAT

There are three major sections of the SAT, each responsible for measuring skills in a major learning category.

Reading – 65 mins

At just over an hour, the Reading section has 52 multiple choice questions and represents a major chunk of the exam. This section measures your ability to absorb information. You may find yourself reading a pair of related passages or pulling data from charts, graphs, and other visual illustrations.

More than anything, this first SAT section will evaluate reading skills. Can you find evidence? Are you able to identify word meanings? Can you interpret and understand the information before you?

You may find that the Reading section contains science-related passages, but it doesn’t test scientific knowledge outright.

Writing / Language – 35 mins

The second section is the shortest of the three mandatory sections (and is even shorter than the optional essay). It contains 44 multiple choice questions based on more reading passages.

In some ways, success in the Writing section will be correlated to your abilities as a proofreader. That’s because, in addition to your reading skills, you’ll be evaluated based on English language conventions.

If the Reading section measures how well you receive information, the Writing section measures whether you know how to best impart information.

Mathematics – 80 mins

With the SAT, the longest section comes last. In Mathematics, you’ll find yourself completing two separate levels – first without, and then with, a calculator. There are 58 math questions in all, 20 in the first (no-calculator) level and 38 in the second.

To assist you, one of the first pages of the Mathematics section has a diagram containing several basic formulas. You can reference this page throughout the math portion of the exam.

The Mathematics section focuses primarily on practical math, and will certainly touch on:

  • Problem solving
  • Data analysis
  • Algebraic concepts
  • Understanding of expressions and equations
  • A mixed bag of “additional topics in math”

The “mixed bag” section can contain any number of mathematical concepts, but usually has some geometry, some complex numbers, and a little trig. There are usually only five or six questions from this category.

By the end of the SAT, you’ll have filled in nearly 140 multiple choice answers. The remaining answers will be filled in using “grid-in” forms. They use the same fill-in-the-bubble format, but require you to provide open-ended answers. Instead of selecting from A, B, C, or D, you’ll need to solve a problem and use the bubbles to create a specific answer, such as 6.65 or .02.

Essay (optional) – 50 mins

If you elect to take the Essay section, you will need to read a short passage (usually not more than 750 words) and then answer a single essay question.

Unlike previous iterations of the SAT exam, you will not be asked to contribute personal stories to your essay. Instead, you’ll be asked to evaluate the way that the author formed his/her argument and judge its persuasiveness.

This section is scored separately from the rest of the exam. You will receive a total of three scores (reading, analysis, writing) each measured 2-8. Three eights is a perfect score.

The Sections of the ACT

If you were paying attention earlier, then you noticed that the ACT has one more mandatory section than the SAT. That’s the science section. Unless you’re taking the optional essay section, it’s how you’ll end your ACT experience.

English – 45 mins

Every ACT exam begins with a 45-minute English section containing 75 questions. You’ll want to be at your best from the very beginning because you’ll have five passages to read through and questions to accompany them all.

This section tests two broad areas: Usage & Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills. Can you recognize whether sentences are formed properly? Can you measure and improve the impact of non-mechanical components, such as word choice, organization, and so on? You’ll rarely be expected to “figure out” what’s going on in the ACT’s English section. Questions will probe your recall for information already present in your memory.

Mathematics – 60 mins

Once you’ve completed the English section, you’ll move onto the Mathematics section where things slow down a bit. There are fewer questions here – only 60 – plus more time to work! Questions can come in a variety of forms (you’ll definitely have word problems), but all answers are multiple choice.

Students often find the Mathematics section of the ACT familiar because it tests the exact same material they’ve learned in the classroom. In all, they’ll need to complete six math subsections, including:

  • Pre-Algebra
  • Basic Algebra
  • Intermediate Algebra
  • Plane Geometry
  • Coordinate Geometry, and
  • Trigonometry

Unlike the SAT, the Mathematics section of the ACT places a lot of emphasis on geometry. On test day, up to one-third of your questions could address this topic.

One thing to remember is that the easiest questions always come first and the difficulty increases as you go, but you can use your calculator the whole time.

Reading – 35 mins

In the Reading section, there are four parts, and each presents content in a specific category (fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science). You will need to complete 40 questions, though they may or may not be evenly distributed between the various passages.

Compared to the SAT, the ACT’s Reading questions make you work quickly; however, that doesn’t mean you should panic. “Despite moving quicker, many students find the reading on the ACT significantly easier,” Suzy insists.

This is partially because the passages tend to be more straightforward than SAT reading passages. It’s also because the questions lean heavily on data retrieval rather than interpretation.

Science – 35 mins

Finally, comes the rumored ACT Science section. Although the ACT is billed as more of an achievement test than the SAT, the Science section doesn’t require you to have formidable scientific knowledge.

Instead, you’ll find that most of your 40 questions ask you to interpret the meanings of charts, tables, graphs, experiment summaries, and written passages. You won’t be asked to recall the elements of the periodic table, but you may be asked to pull information from it. In all, there are about seven separate parts to the Science section, with about 7 questions apiece.


Essay (optional) – 40 mins

Just like the SAT, the ACT offers you the option of completing one additional question. On the ACT, it is the only non-multiple choice question you’ll ever have to answer. This Essay section is ten minutes shorter than on the SAT, but what you lose in time, you gain in guidance.

The section begins with a short passage about some controversial (or at least debatable) issue, then presents three possible positions.

First, you must identify your own position. It’s okay if you totally agree with one position, partially agree with more than one position, or hold an entirely different position. From here, your job is to write a concise, reasoning-based, persuasive essay that explains your thoughts.

Graders will rate your essay based on ideas and analysis, development and evidence, organization, and language. You’ll receive four scores (all out of 12) which will then form one composite score (also out of 12).

The Differences That Matter to You

In addition to differences in exam structure, there are a few key differences that are likely to influence which exam you elect to take.

Reasoning-based vs. Knowledge-based Exams

While similar, the SAT and the ACT are designed to evaluate students using different criteria. It’s already been explained a bit, but – for good measure – check out Suzy’s explanation on Quora:

“The SAT is a reasoning test, slightly similar to an IQ test. The ACT is an achievement test. Instead of questions based on how you think and reason, they question what you know and have learned. Thus, for many, the ACT feels more familiar because it seems most similar to tests in high school.”

The SAT places more emphasis on problem-solving and analysis. The ACT weighs recall and understanding more heavily. If you prefer drawing conclusions to reaching into your memory banks, then the SAT could seem attractive. If you want a testing experience that feels like your high school classroom, then the ACT needs to be considered.

National Merit Confirmations

If you’re a top-tier student, you may have your eyes on a National Merit Scholarship, which recognizes the top 1% of American high school students with financial scholarship incentives. For these students, the SAT has a leg up on the ACT.

That’s because National Merit Semifinalists must achieve a sufficient “confirming score” on the SAT to become finalists. The ACT does not qualify for these purposes. Potential National Merit Finalists who don’t take the SAT could be giving up money to help them attend college. That’s why all of the highest-performing students should take the SAT.

Calculator Rules

For some students, having a calculator makes them feel safe. Since calculators are such an integral part of math education in most places, it’s natural for students to grow comfortable with them. However, calculator usage is one area where the SAT and ACT differ.

The rules of the SAT allow calculator use only on the second of two levels in the Mathematics section. On the second level, you’ll need a graphing calculator.

On the other hand, ACT participants are permitted to use their calculator for all parts of the Mathematics section. No question requires a calculator, but we recommend bringing it nonetheless.

It’s worth mentioning here that not all calculators are created equal. Students are responsible for verifying their calculators are permissible. (Find out what’s allowed on the SAT or ACT Calculator Policy pages.)

If math makes you anxious, and a calculator helps ease your nerves, then you should consider the ACT as your primary readiness exam.

Regional Preferences

There was a time when certain elite schools in the Northeast preferred to evaluate SAT scores exclusively, which has created a lasting regional preference for that test. However, all schools now accept both tests and regard them equally.

That said, there has been a nationwide push for the ACT over the past ten years. In 2016, the ACT had over 400,000 more participants than its counterpart. A recent SAT redesign has made the two tests more similar than ever, though, so don’t be surprised if that gap shrinks over the next few years.

With all that in mind, it could be a good idea to take the test preferred by other students in your region. Here’s why: lots of ACT-takers make for a good ACT environment. The same is true for SAT-takers.

When everyone takes the same readiness exam, you can take practice tests together. You can go to test prep together. You can discuss what went well and what went poorly after your first attempt. If you have good reasons to take one exam over the other, then do it. If not, this is one instance where it’s okay to go with the crowd.

You Can Always Take Them Both

Unless you’re a National Merit Semifinalist, there’s no situation that demands you take one exam or the other. You can select the one that makes you most comfortable. In the end, these exams are stepping stones to help you get a good college education, so you should do whatever you have to do to make them work for you. They’re just means to an end.

For that reason, some students elect to increase their odds of getting a killer score by taking both the SAT and the ACT. While that approach comes with its own obstacles, it’s not unusual. Do what you need to do.

Whatever you choose, we’ll be right here, ready to help.

[SAT rules the coasts, while the ACT dominates the central U.S.]