Which Is Easier, the SAT or the ACT?

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As most high school students know, the SAT and ACT are high stakes tests. Not only can they be the key to scholarships and other opportunities, but also nailing your standardized tests is often one major component of a successful college application. It’s no wonder that students often come to us wondering, “Which is easier, the SAT or the ACT?”

 

We wish there were a neat and tidy answer to this question, but in reality which test is easier varies depending on your own skills and preferences. In this post, we’ll give you five questions to ask yourself as you decide which test will be easiest for you.

 

Differences between the ACT and SAT

 

While both tests are meant to indicate a student’s college preparedness, they have some key differences. So, what is the ACT test? And what’s the SAT? Here are some important distinctions:

 

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)

 

There are some other important differences to keep in mind. For example, on the SAT, you’ll be given a sheet with math formulas, but you’ll need to memorize those formulas for the ACT.

 

You should also know that taking the PSAT will enable you to enter the National Merit Scholarship competition, which offers scholarships of up to $2,500 for top 1% scorers by state. Those aiming for National Merit status might want to take the SAT, as studying for the PSAT will help prepare you for the SAT too. 

 

Finally, beginning September 2020, you’ll be able to retake specific sections of the ACT rather than resitting for the entire test. This is a huge benefit to students who are close to their goal score, but might have fallen short in a section or two.

Do You Live in a State Where You’re Required to Take a Specific Test?

 

Alright, so this question isn’t exactly related to how easy each test is, but it does shed a lot of light on how much exposure and familiarity you’re likely to have with each test.

 

It’s not uncommon for some states to use these tests as a part of their state-wide testing. As of this year, the following states use these standardized tests as an element of their statewide testing regimen:

 

States that use the ACT in statewide testing States that use the SAT in statewide testing States that use either the ACT or SAT (determined by district)
Alabama Colorado Missouri
Hawaii Connecticut Ohio
Idaho Delaware Oklahoma
Kentucky District of Columbia South Carolina
Louisiana Idaho Tennessee
Mississippi Illinois
Montana Maine
Nebraska Michigan
Nevada New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Dakota
Utah
Wisconsin
Wyoming

 

If your state uses one of these tests, your teachers will likely be more familiar with it and you will likely receive some instruction geared specifically towards it in school. Simply through exposure, you will probably be more familiar with the test, its format, and its content.

 

To be clear, just because you live in one of these states doesn’t mean that you’re required to submit the scores from that test with your college applications. We do suggest, however, that you take this into consideration when deciding which test you’ll take and submit. Test as a requirement certainly gives you a head start in your prep work.

 

Bottom Line: If you’re already required to take one test in particular, you will likely have more exposure to it and better resources for preparing for it. If all other factors are even, take the test that you’re already required to take for high school.

Are You a Science Whiz?

 

It’s no huge secret that there’s no science section on the SAT. That being said, the science section on the ACT is actually less about actual science and more about scientific reasoning skills.

 

While you won’t be asked to memorize the periodic table or to design a hypothetical experiment,  your scientific knowledge will still come in handy on this section of the test. If you’re familiar with scientific terminology and are comfortable thinking in those terms, you will have an automatic advantage. You will spend less time thinking about what a question is asking you to do, and more time thinking about the best answer. On a quickly-paced test such as the ACT, this can be an important distinction.

 

Bottom Line:  If science is your jam, the ACT will better highlight your scientific reasoning skills. Your scientific thinking will also give you an advantage in reading and interpreting the questions in this section.

Do You Do Better at Algebra and Data Analysis or at Trigonometry and Geometry?

 

Both tests have math sections, but the SAT and ACT math sections focus on different things. One of the biggest discrepancies is their balance of content.

 

The SAT is algebra and data heavy. Remember, since there is no science section on the SAT, all those questions about interpreting graphs and data sets are included on the math section. Trigonometry and geometry questions account for less than 10% of the SAT math section.  

 

On the other hand, the ACT covers a broader base of knowledge with a heavier emphasis on geometry and trig. Up to a third of the ACT math section is comprised of geometry and trigonometry questions.

 

Bottom Line: If you excel at geometry and trigonometry, or if you struggle with algebra, your strengths are probably better highlighted by the ACT.

Are You a Grammar Fiend?

 

The ACT English section and the SAT Writing and Language section both assess generally the same skills, but there are a few key differences. The greatest distinguishing factor is probably the greater emphasis the ACT places on grammar and punctuation.

 

While the SAT also includes some questions about grammar and punctuation, in general its focus is more specifically on a writer’s stylistic choices and specific writing style. The SAT also tests your knowledge of vocabulary.

 

Bottom Line:  If you love grammar, the ACT will naturally be a better fit for your skills.

Is Your First Instinct Usually Right?

 

Both the SAT and ACT are timed tests. Most students find that there is limited time for checking answers, reviewing work, and going back through passages or calculations to identify missteps.

 

While this is true of both tests, the ACT is more quickly paced than the SAT. On the ACT math section, you have an average of 60 seconds per question, while on the SAT math section, you have an average of 81 seconds per question. Similarly, on the ACT English section, you have a scant 36 seconds per question while on the SAT Writing and Language section you have 48 seconds per question.

 

These differences may sound small, but when you compound them over 60-75 questions, they can really add up.

Bottom line

 

Ultimately, while both tests are challenging, many students find one is a better fit over the other. Here’s a quick summary of the major differences.

 

Take the SAT if:

  • You need extra time to check your work.
  • You have a great vocabulary.
  • Having math formulas handy will be helpful.
  • Science is difficult for you.
  • You’re better at algebra than geometry and trigonometry.
  • You want to aim for National Merit Semifinalist standing from the PSAT

 

Take the ACT if:

  • You can trust your gut instinct.
  • You need a calculator for math problems.
  • You’re great at science.
  • Grammar is a strength.
  • You’re better at geometry and trig than algebra.
  • You plan to take the ACT after September 2020 and can take advantage of the new policy allowing you to retake individual sections.

 

Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT. 

 

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
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.