ACT vs. SAT: Which One Should You Take?

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Many students find themselves debating whether they should take the ACT or the SAT. The ACT and SAT are the two main standardized tests used in the admissions process, and most applicants take one or both of these exams before they submit their college applications. Some schools don’t require standardized test scores, but most do.

All exams are usually accepted by colleges nationwide, and give admissions officers a better idea of how you compare with other applicants from different high schools. However, many students may find themselves wondering what the difference is between the SAT and ACT. In this post, we’ll review the pros and cons of each option in order to help you determine which exam options are right for you.

What’s the Difference between the SAT and ACT?

Below is a chart summarizing some of the main similarities and differences between the SAT and the ACT:

 SAT ACT Subjects Covered Reading Math Writing & Language Essay (optional) English Math Reading Science Writing/Essay (optional) Time (including breaks) 3 hours 15 minutes 4 hrs 7 minutes (with essay) 3 hrs 5 minutes  3 hrs 50 minutes (with essay) Scoring 400-1600 composite 200-800 by section 1-36 composite (rounded average of each section score, also out of 36) Fees $49.50 ($64.50 with Essay) $52 ($68 with Writing) Test style Evidence, context-based, and problem-solving question Long, straightforward questions Calculator allowed Yes, for one of the two Math sections Yes, for the Math section Penalty for wrong answers No No Retake option Yes Yes Essay Style Asks students to respond to a passage between 650 and 750 words by evaluating the author’s argument (50 minutes) Asks students to evaluate different perspectives on a topic and offer their own views (45 minutes)

As indicated above, students considering whether to take the SAT or ACT should note that they are permitted to retake both exams. However, for the SAT, students are required to retake the entire exam. On the other hand, ACT students will be able to retake a single exam section as of September 2020. So, if your ACT math score is low but your English, reading, and science scores are high, you can opt to retake only the math section on another date. For this reason, the ACT may be a wise choice for students who are worried about their performance in one or two testing areas.

When evaluating the difference between the SAT and ACT, students may also want to consider the fact that the SAT now includes a metric intended to provide context about a student’s upbringing. Earlier this year, the SAT created an adversity score designed to reflect a test taker’s economic circumstances and background. After critics challenged the College Board’s willingness to distill adversity down to a single number, the SAT rebranded its adversity score as Landscape

Intended to put a student’s SAT score and achievements into context, Landscape relays information on a test taker’s school and the neighborhood in which they were raised. Despite the controversy surrounding this component of the SAT, the Landscape feature may be helpful for students who want colleges to understand more about their background and experiences. Most selective private colleges will already do this research, but Landscape can provide more context to larger public schools that are less likely to have similar information.

What Are SAT Subject Tests? Are there ACT Subject Tests, Too?

If you think you want to take the SAT, then you might be wondering whether you also need to register for the SAT Subject Tests. SAT Subject Tests are hour-long multiple-choice exams focused on a single subject. You can take up to three in one test sitting. Each exam costs $18, and students must also pay a baseline fee of$26 to register. There is no corresponding type of exam for the ACT (ACT Subject Tests don’t exist).

Many top colleges require or recommend that students take 1-3 SAT Subject tests. In the past, some schools allowed students to skip the Subject Tests if they took the ACT. There are still a handful of schools that have this policy. That said, it’s more than likely that at least one of your schools will require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, if you’re applying to top research universities, selective liberal arts colleges, and the UC schools. Additionally, aspiring engineers and students who were homeschooled may be asked to submit the scores for up to three Subject Tests with their college applications

The College Board currently offers 20 Subject Tests in the following five areas: Math, Science, English, History, and Languages. Like the SAT, the Subject tests are scored on a 200-800 scale.

The table below shows all the test subjects currently available for college-bound students:

 Math Science English History Languages Level 1 Biology Literature U.S. History Spanish (with and without listening) Level 2 Chemistry World History French (with and without listening) Physics Chinese (with and without listening) Italian German (with and without listening) Modern Hebrew Latin Japanese (with and without listening) Korean (with and without listening)

You can learn more about the SAT Subject Tests by checking out our blog posts on the topic. We have posts that recommend which tests to take based on your prospective major, and we also cover other advice, like whether you should take the language tests.

As part of our free guidance platform, our Admissions Assessment tells you what schools you need to improve your SAT score for and by how much. Sign up to get started today.

Should You Take the ACT or SAT?

Once you’ve assessed the difference between the SAT and the ACT, it’s time to decide which exams are right for you. Along with considering the requirements and recommendations for your target institutions, you might want to look into whether your school offer free testing. For example, some school systems in Maryland now offer free SAT testing and vouchers to take the ACT.

It’s worth noting that no colleges currently require students to submit scores for both the SAT and the ACT, and most schools accept either standardized test. Rather than studying for both the SAT and ACT, it’s wise to spend time improving other aspects of your college application. For example, you may want to work on your GPA or improve your extracurriculars to increase your desirability as an applicant.

Keep reading to discover whether the SAT or ACT is the way to go.

Reasons to Choose the ACT

It might be a graduation requirement.

In certain states, you have to take the ACT with or without Writing to graduate from high school. These states are:

 ACT with Writing ACT without Writing Alabama Kentucky Hawaii Louisiana Montana Mississippi Nebraska Wyoming Nevada North Carolina North Dakota Utah

If you already need to take the test for graduation, it might make sense to simply focus your efforts on the ACT.

In the states where the ACT is a graduation requirement, the test is offered for free by each district. Additionally, some states may have a contract with the ACT to provide free testing, even if the test isn’t a required. This is true in Arkansas and Kansas, where the ACT without Writing is offered. Other states may also require either the SAT or the ACT and allow districts to decide which one to administer for free. If that’s the case for your state, speak to your counselor to find out which test will be administered.

You can use your calculator on all math sections.

Additionally, the ACT may be a good option for those who aren’t as strong in mental math, as the test allows students to use a calculator for all math questions. It’s worth noting, though, that students are not permitted to use a calculator for the ACT Science section, even though it does require some basic arithmetic.

You can retake individual sections beginning Fall 2020.

Finally, one of the biggest benefits associated with the ACT is that students can opt to retake individual sections. As of September 2020, you can opt to retake one or more portions of the test rather than sitting again for the exam as a whole.

Reasons to Choose the SAT

More time per question.

Students who struggle with test taking might prefer the SAT because there’s less of a time crunch than the ACT. For instance, you get about 20 seconds longer per question on the Reading section of the SAT than the ACT. If the possibility of not getting to every question stresses you out, you might want to choose the SAT.

There’s a math formula sheet.

The SAT provides a sheet with certain math formulas, such as the area of a circle, special right triangles, and volume of a pyramid. For the ACT, you’re expected to memorize all necessary math formulas. If you have trouble recalling these formulas, you might want to take the SAT instead.

There’s no science section.

The SAT may also be a good choice for students who don’t perform the best in science. Unlike the ACT, the SAT doesn’t have a science section (though some passages may feature scientific content). Still, students can generally focus their efforts on math and language arts.

If you’re aiming for National Merit status, studying for the PSAT helps your SAT prep.

The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Top 1% scorers in each state are given Semifinalist status, and can go on to compete for scholarships. Students who want to aim for National Merit Semifinalist status will need to prep for the PSAT and can concurrently SAT study for the SAT. After all, the tests are similar in terms of format and question style. So, it might make sense for them to simply take the SAT rather than study for an entirely new test.

Should You Take the SAT Subject Tests?

Many top colleges still require that students take 1-3 SAT Subject tests. In many cases, this is true whether you took the SAT or the ACT, though a handful of schools may not require Subject Tests if you took the ACT. That said, it’s more than likely that at least one of your schools will require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, if you’re applying to top research universities and liberal arts colleges. Additionally, aspiring engineers and students who were homeschooled may be asked to submit the scores for up to three Subject Tests with their college applications.

Before all else, students should check the policies of each of their schools. If any of them require or recommend Subject Tests, it’s in your best interest to take them, even if they’re just recommended and not mandatory. If your school list isn’t totally set in stone, you may also want to take the Subject Tests. That way, your options stay open, and you don’t have to scramble to take them last-minute if you add a new school to your list.

The good news is that studying for the SAT Subject Tests doesn’t have to be a great inconvenience. Because there are so many options to choose from, the SAT Subject Tests allow you to not only demonstrate specific skills, but also interest in a given field. Potential science majors can choose to take both the Biology and Chemistry subject tests. Future engineers may opt to take the Mathematics Level II and Physics exams, and those who are inclined towards classics may sit for the Literature and Latin tests. So, theoretically, students should also have some knowledge of the testing subject.

Additionally, the SAT Subject Tests often correspond to classes you’ve taken in high school, so you might not have to spend as much time studying for them. In particular, the SAT Subject Tests often correlate with the material taught in your AP courses. As such, it is a good idea to take a given subject test around the time you take the AP for that same subject. For this reason, you may want to take these tests in May or June, as your AP class will be wrapping up around this time. Even if you’re not taking the AP version of the course, you can still study for finals of the regular course and the Subject Test at the same time.

Final Thoughts

Here’s a table to help you decide which test to take. Count the number of “agrees” and “disagrees” you have at the end.

 Statement Agree Disagree I live in a state that requires the ACT for graduation (AL, HI, KY, LA, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, NV, UT, WY), or my school district requires the ACT. I excel in science. I work well under time pressure. Winning a National Merit Scholarship is not one of my goals. Memorizing math formulas doesn’t faze me. I feel reassured when I can use a calculator to do math.

If you have more “agrees” than “disagrees,” you should consider taking the ACT. If you have more “disagrees,” the SAT might be better-suited to you. If you had an even number of each, keep reading.

If you’re struggling with deciding between the SAT and ACT, or the chart above gave you an even number of “agrees” and “disagrees”: consider taking a free diagnostic test to figure out where your strengths and weaknesses lie. You can take the locally-offered paper and pencil ones offered by the Princeton Review, or you can take one at home. You can easily find many SAT practice tests and ACT practice tests online that you can then print out.

Whichever diagnostic you score higher on should be the test where you focus your efforts. You can compare your SAT and ACT score using concordance tables, which will convert your SAT score to an ACT one, and vice versa.

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April Maguire
Blogger at CollegeVine
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A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.
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