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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.


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.

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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:


How the ACT Is Graded: A Breakdown

ACT Statistics: Participation and Rankings By State

Here are the Average SAT Scores by State

The CollegeVine Guide to SAT Scores: All Your Questions Answered

How the New SAT is Scored

What is a Good SAT Score?

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 the pressure of time might do better 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. In addition, the ACT essay is driven by critical thinking.


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.


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 centers located without a reasonable distance of your home, you might need to consider the other test or think about whether it’s possible to get a hotel room nearby, even for multiple test dates.


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


If you still have questions about SAT scores or you are interested in our full service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist