SAT vs ACT: Everything You Need to Know
At some point in your high school career, if you intend to apply to colleges, you’ll most likely need to take a standardized test. Though not all colleges require them for admissions, most colleges still do require that you submit either SAT or ACT scores, but which test you take is completely up to you.
Some students might be tempted to take both tests and then submit whichever score is relatively higher, but we at CollegeVine aren’t big fans of this strategy. Because we know how different these tests are, we always encourage our students to choose one and focus on it explicitly. This gives you more time to learn the test and the appropriate content and strategy for it, ensuring that you get the highest score possible.
If you’re deciding which standardized test to take, it may feel like a shot in the dark. This doesn’t have to be the case, though. In this post, we break down the key points to consider when choosing between the SAT and ACT.
Differences Between the SAT and ACT
What Do the Tests Measure? Which Test is Easier?
If the answer were this simple, everyone would already know. The reality is that different tests are easier for different students. Instead of asking which is easier, it might be more helpful to think about the components of each and which is better suited to you personally.
The ACT consists of five sections: English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning, and an optional Essay. In comparison, the SAT consists only of four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and an optional Essay.
Much of the content on the two tests is quite similar. Although the ACT is often referred to as an achievement test and the SAT is often referred to as an aptitude test, test experts generally agree that neither test measures more content-specific knowledge over the other.
Two primary differences to consider are the Math and Science components. The SAT has no science section, so if science is your jam, the ACT may be better suited to your strengths. That said, the ACT science section does not measure science content knowledge but instead the thinking skills relevant to science, like data analysis and critical thinking.
On the other hand, one section of the SAT math does not allow use of a calculator so if you tend to rely heavily on yours, you might consider the ACT a better alternative.
Which Test is Longer?
The time you need to spend on each test is remarkably similar. Without the essay component, the SAT takes three hours to complete. If you complete the optional essay (which we recommend you do), the test will take you three hours and 50 minutes to complete.
In comparison, the ACT without the optional essay takes two hours and 55 minutes to complete. If you complete the optional essay, your time will be extended to three hours and 40 minutes, only negligibly shorter than its SAT counterpart.
This being said, the ACT has significantly more questions on it, thereby requiring you to move at a much faster pace. If you need time to consider answers or you’re the type of student who finds that your first hunch on a question is not often accurate, the SAT may be better suited to your pacing and strengths.
Are the Essays Similar?
The essays are another divergent point between the two tests. The ACT optional essay asks you to evaluate and analyze a complex issue. In short, you need to come up with your own unique argument and support it.
The SAT essay, though, focuses more on evaluating your comprehension of a source text. In other words, you need to evaluate the strength of someone else’s argument. Neither is easier than the other, but your personal preference may make one seemingly better suited for you. The SAT essay is better suited for those who excel in reading comprehension while the ACT essay is better suited for those who excel at critical thinking and analysis.
Who Are You Competing Against?
It’s important to know who your competition is. Although the tests are not graded on a traditional curve, colleges will be evaluating your performance in comparison to that of other applicants. For this reason, you’ll want to take the test which better sets you up to perform well against others who are taking the same test.
Although both tests are now accepted at every four-year college in the country, there are regional differences regarding which tests are most popular where. In general, the ACT is more popular with students in the midwest and in public schools. On the other hand, the SAT is generally more popular with students on the east and west coasts and in private schools.
To learn more about regional test preferences and how each test is scored, check out these posts:
ACT Statistics: Participation and Rankings By State
How Does the Curve Work for the SAT?
The Complete Guide to the ACT Score Report
How Does the Scoring Curve Work for the ACT?
How To Choose Which Test to Take
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for which test you should take. You’ll need to make your own decision based on your personal strengths and preferences. To get started in the right direction, consider these questions:
Do you excel under pressure, or do you need more time to consider each question carefully?
Students who excel under time constraints might perform well on the ACT, while those who prefer more time for each question may do better on the SAT.
Do you do well with data analysis and critical thinking?
The ACT is slightly more favored towards data analysis and critical thinking, since the science section tests these skills extensively. If interpreting scientific charts and data is your forte, you might consider the ACT.
In addition, the ACT essay is driven by critical thinking and your ability to build and support an argument under time constraints. If you are able to break down a complicated question into clear, well-evidenced points, then the ACT might be for you.
Are you good at mental math and reasoning?
The SAT contains a math section on which no calculator is allowed. For students who do well with mental math and reasoning, this section can provide an edge.
Have you taken the PSAT/NMSQT and received a competitive score?
If you took the PSAT as a freshman or sophomore and performed well, then you might consider vying for a National Merit Scholarship. The PSAT is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test for high school juniors. Top 1% scorers by state earn the title “National Merit Semifinalist” and can go on to apply for college scholarships (about 50% of semifinalists become finalists and receive scholarships). Awards are usually a one-time scholarship of $2500, though some schools may match that amount and renew the award yearly. Some colleges, such as the University of Alabama, even offer automatic full rides to National Merit Semifinalists. If you scored around or above your state cutoff in 9th or 10th grade, you might consider studying for the PSAT with the goal of becoming a semifinalist your junior year. If you do decide to focus on PSAT prep, it only makes sense to choose the SAT over the ACT, as you’ll already be doing SAT-style practice questions for your PSAT studying.
Are there test centers for each test that are convenient for you?
Although there are test centers for each test located throughout the country, some are further apart than others. If there are no test locations within a reasonable distance of your home, you might need to consider the other test or think about travel plans, even for multiple test dates.
Does your state require one of the tests, or offer it for free?
Some states may offer an official annual in-school test sitting, where you don’t have to pay a thing. Nineteen states currently have this practice for the ACT, 13 of which actually require the test for all high school juniors. If you know that you will already be taking one of the exams, then you might consider sticking with the same test offered for free, especially if the aforementioned factors don’t hold much weight for you. If you’re concerned about paying for the tests, both the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers for both registration fees and sending score reports.
If you still aren’t sure what test to pick, consider taking a practice exam in each and seeing how you score. If one of your results is in a higher percentile range than the other, you should select that test as you naturally perform better on it.
How to Prepare for the SAT or ACT
Regardless of which test you pick, here are some important things to keep in mind:
- Take an official test by fall of your junior year. That way, you’ll have ample opportunity to improve your score and retake the test in the spring of your junior year, if needed. If you start in junior spring, you may need to retake the test in the fall of your senior year, which simply isn’t ideal while you’re worrying about all your application deadlines.
- Focus your studying on your trouble spots. Don’t simply keep taking practice tests or doing practice questions across all topics. You should take practice tests and you should work on all types of questions, but if there are particular concepts you struggle with, focus on improving those first.
- Practice consistently. Set aside 30 minutes to an hour a day to work on specific topics that give you trouble, or do a section of the test. Each weekend, you should set aside a larger chunk of time so that you can take a timed practice test.
For more help preparing for the ACT, check out these tips and study strategies:
10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score
A Guide to the English Section of the ACT
Four Common Mistakes to Avoid on Your English ACT
Three Grammar Rules Every Student Messes Up on the ACT
Five ACT Math Mistakes to Avoid
A Guide to the Reading Section of the ACT
The Four Types of Passages You’ll See on ACT Reading
A Guide to the Science Section of the ACT
For more help preparing for the SAT, check out these tips and study strategies:
Tips to Prepare Yourself for Your SAT Test Day
How to Pace Yourself on Every Section of the SAT
Five SAT Strategies You Should Know
10 Tips to Prepare for the SAT
How Many SAT or ACT Practice Tests Should You Take?
What Parents Need to Know about ACT and SAT Studying Prep
Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT.
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