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.



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 ACT Tests In Statewide Testing States That Use SAT Tests in Statewide Testing
Alabama Colorado
Hawaii Connecticut
Kentucky Delaware
Louisiana District of Columbia
Mississippi Illinois
Missouri Maine
Montana Michigan
Nebraska New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Dakota (students take either the ACT or WorkKeys Tests)
South Carolina


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 though, that you take this into consideration when deciding which test you’ll take and submit. Although taking the test as a requirement might not make it easier for you, it 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.

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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 if your jam, the ACT will better highlight your scientific reasoning skills and your scientific thinking will 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 emphases on the SAT and ACT math sections are very different. 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 placed by the ACT on grammar and punctation.


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:  If you’re the type of students who generally has a gut instinct that’s spot on, the ACT will help you to set yourself apart. If you need a few extra seconds to recheck your work or think twice, the SAT is a better fit.


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


For tips about preparing for standardized tests, see our posts:


ACT vs SAT/SAT Subject Tests

Five SAT Strategies You Should Know

10 Tips to Prepare for the SAT

Tips to Prepare Yourself for Your SAT Test Day

How Your SAT Score Impacts Your College Admissions

What Is a Good SAT Score in 2018?

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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.