The paper-based SAT, the new, digital, adaptive SAT, or the ACT? As you approach your junior and senior years and the college application process, one of the most crucial decisions you will have to make is about which standardized exam to take. Each test has their fans and their detractors, and there are benefits and drawbacks to each. Rising U.S. juniors (Class of 2025) will be the first to take the brand new, shorter, digital, adaptive SAT debuting in March 2024. Take time to educate yourself about the format and timing of the exams. We can help guide you through the decision making process.
Here are some helpful tips to figure out which exam is best for you.
Learn about the tests:
The SAT and ACT are much more alike than they are different. Both test for “college readiness” and are accepted at all colleges and universities in the US. Let’s discuss the similarities between the exams for starters.
Each test consist almost entirely of multiple-choice questions. Both the paper-based SAT and the ACT take approximately three hours to complete. An optional essay, which does not affect the composite score, can be tacked on to the ACT only. The new digital, adaptive SAT will cut total testing time by nearly ⅓, to 2 hours, 14 minutes.
The SAT and ACT test the same core skills:
- Knowledge of English language conventions
- Reading comprehension
- Math skills, up to and including precalculus
- Interpreting and analyzing charts and tables
Understand the timing and differences between the exams:
The following table summarizes the format and timing of the tests.
|ACT||Paper-Based SAT||Digital, Adaptive SAT|
3 hours, 35 minutes (with essay)
2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)
3 hours (without essay)
2 hours, 14 minutes
|# of Questions:
|# of Questions:
|# of Questions:
English, Math, Reading,
Science, Essay (optional)
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math
Four sections (not including essay) are averaged for a Composite score from 1-36
Essay scored separately from 2-12
Two sections are scored separately and added for a score from 400-1600.
Two sections are broken down into two individual, “stage adaptive” modules. The level of difficulty of the questions a student receives in the second module of each section will be based on the student’s performance in the first module. The second module a student receives will impact their scoring potential.
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Alright, let’s cut to the chase, what are the key differences between the tests and why should I care?
We could provide a laundry list of all the little differences between the two exams, but, instead, we’ll focus on the key differences between the SAT and ACT. So, what are they?
- The ACT has a Science section. Although the name of this section is “Science,” knowledge of chemistry, biology, and physics will only get you so far. The Science test is all about rapidly interpreting and analyzing diagrams, graphs, and tables. These skills are tested in a few questions sprinkled throughout the SAT (including the verbal sections), but the ACT has an entire section dedicated to this. For many students, the Science test is the most challenging section of the ACT due to time constraints.
- The ACT provides less time per question. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to more “time pressure” on the ACT. ACT questions tend to be a bit more straightforward than SAT questions, so some students can zip through the ACT without feeling a timing pressure. Because SAT questions often require a higher level of critical reasoning than ACT questions, they take longer to answer. Most often, timing feels like more of a challenge to students on the ACT, but it’s best to take a diagnostic test of each to see which one a student favors.
- The SAT Reading questions require more critical thinking, and allow you more time, while the ACT Reading questions are more straightforward, but require a faster pace.
- Many aspects of the Math sections differ. The chart below summarizes the key aspects.
Consider which test is better for you math-wise:
|A portion of the math does not allow use of a calculator||Calculator allowed for the whole math test|
|Math score makes up 50% of your total score||Math score makes up 25% of composite score|
|Algebra (I and II) makes up 61% of the questions. Geometry makes up less than 10%.||
Algebra (I and II) makes up 32% and Geometry 37% of the questions.
|Mostly multiple choice (four choices). Some free response questions||Entirely multiple choice (5 choices)|
|Some basic formulas are provided||No formulas provided|
|More time per question, on average, than on ACT||Less time per question, on average, than on SAT|
Which test is more difficult?
In short, neither test is inherently more difficult, but due to the differences between the tests, some students find one more challenging than the other. In the end, it is often a matter of personal taste. The best way to know which test is right for you is to take both of them and see how they feel to you. You might be surprised by the results. Often students are sure that one exam is the best one for them but they do better on the other. Compare your SAT and ACT practice scores. Remember, you can also submit both tests in your application.
Having a general understanding of the differences between the SAT and ACT will allow you to have much more productive conversations with a tutor or teacher about which test may be better for you. It’s tempting to favor one test or the other based on some of the differences discussed here, but we highly recommend that you seek expert help in making the SAT/ACT decision.
Enter your PSAT, SAT, or ACT score into our concordance tool to convert your score.
Drag to set your SAT Score:
While the concordance tool above can show you how your score on one test equates to your score on another, our comparison tool can help guide your decision on which test is a better fit for you. Simply enter your PSAT/SAT and ACT scores below to find out if you favor one test versus another. Note: there are a number of factors that go into making the SAT/ACT decision, in addition to your scores. Please call us to discuss your diagnostic plan – we are happy to help!
Drag to set your PSAT Score:
Drag to set your ACT Score: