Like Pepsi or Coke – the Red Sox or the Yankees – it’s time to answer the age old question – The 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. Both tests have their fans and their detractors, and there are benefits and drawbacks to both. 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 both 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.
Both tests consist almost entirely of multiple-choice questions and take approximately three hours to complete. An optional essay, which does not affect the composite score, can be tacked on to either test.
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 two tests.
2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)
3 hours, 35 minutes (with essay)
3 hours (without essay)
English, Math, Reading,
Science, Essay (optional)
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,
Four sections (not including essay) are averaged for composite score from 1-36
Essay scored separately from 2-12
Two sections are scored separately and added for score from 400-1600.
Delete the record of your scores
on a test date any time
Cancel scores before Wednesday
11:59pm after test date
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.
- Many aspects of the math sections differ. We will dive deeper into the differences between the math sections in another post, but 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 composite score
|Math score makes up 25% of composite score
|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.