Should you take the ACT or the SAT?
Not that long ago, your choice of taking the ACT or SAT was largely dependent on where you lived or where you wanted to go to college. Students on the East Coast or in the western United States primarily took the SAT, and students living in southern states or the Midwest took the ACT.
These geographical boundaries have mostly disappeared and the “ACT vs SAT” issue has become more complicated.
Today, both tests are widely accepted by most colleges and universities, who don’t view one test more favorably than the other. This leaves students across the country wondering which test is better (or easier!). This post goes through the differences between the SAT and ACT to help you determine which one offers you the best opportunity to get a top score.
An Update to the SAT
In 2016, the College Board completely redesigned the SAT. The changes they introduced actually make the test more like the ACT, which has been growing in popularity. More students now take the ACT versus the SAT. While there are outside factors influencing this trend, the primary thing to understand is that the ACT and new SAT are now more closely aligned in content. The College Board also eliminated the penalty for wrong answers on the SAT, which makes even the way that test is scored more like the ACT. Your decision as to whether to take the SAT or ACT really comes down to a few key differences.
Both Reading sections offer reading passages followed by a series of questions. The type of reader you are will help you determine which test is better for you.
The SAT Reading section includes some two-part questions that are designed to assess your reasoning skills. The first part of the question requires an answer that is determined by what you read in the passage, and the second part of the question asks you to cite the evidence that supports your answer. If you can’t answer the first part of the question, you won’t be able to answer the second part. Below is an example of one of these questions taken from a College Board SAT Practice Test:
- The passage implies that American cities in 1974:
- A) were witnessing the flight of minority populations to the suburbs.
- B) had begun to lose their manufacturing sectors.
- C) had a traditional four-zone structure.
- D) were already experiencing demographic inversion.
- Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?
- A) Lines 54-57 (“Much… Ernest W. Burgess”)
- B) Lines 58-59 (“It was… settlement”)
- C) Lines 66-71 (“Virtually… continuum”)
- D) Lines 72-75 (“As… home”)
As you can see, this type of question requires more thought and higher level reasoning skills. You not only need to know the answer, you need to understand why you chose that answer and give supporting evidence. While the question does give you the lines from the passage where that evidence can be found, it is still a much deeper analysis than what is seen on the ACT, which has more standard reading comprehension questions.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: If you are a reader who can easily make inferences from text and then cite your reasons, the SAT is your best choice. If you aren’t confident with this level of analysis, the ACT is better for you.
Reading Comprehension and Recall Skills
The other key difference in the Reading sections between the ACT vs the SAT are the support each test offers in helping you find the answers to a question. The SAT Reading questions are in chronological order based on where the information is found in the passage. The answer to the first question can be found at the top of the passage, and the answer to the last question can be found at the end of the passage. This can help you pinpoint where the answer might be if you need to go back through the passage. To help you even more, the SAT questions typically cite the lines where you can find the answer. In contrast, the ACT questions are in random order and don’t tell you where in the passage you can find the answer.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: Reading comprehension and recall are the cornerstone of the ACT Reading section. If you are a strong reader who can recall details about the passage quickly and easily or can quickly scan the text to find what you need, then the ACT is better for you.
The revised version of the SAT has largely eliminated any differences in content in the Math sections. Both tests assess your knowledge on arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. There are two key differences though. The SAT provides formulas to help you with problem solving, while the ACT does not. If you think that sounds great and that the SAT must be easier, note that the SAT has a section of math where you can’t use a calculator. You can use one during the entire ACT math section.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: If you have trouble memorizing math formulas, then the SAT is the better test for you. If you feel more comfortable and confident having your calculator, then you should consider taking the ACT.
Historically, one of the primary differences between the two tests was that the ACT had a Science section while the SAT did not. However, the ACT Science section is not actually testing your knowledge of scientific principles. It is really focused on your ability to read passages of text that include scientific information/language and then answer questions about what you just read. Many of these questions include charts and graphs that you need to interpret. The new version of the SAT still does not have a Science section, but they have tried to close that gap by including more questions throughout the test that include interpreting information on charts and graphs.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: It will be easier for you to understand the passages in the ACT Science section if you are strong in science and have had exposure to scientific papers and experiments. If science is one of your better subjects, the ACT is a better choice.
The SAT questions progress in complexity as you move through the test. Each section starts out with the easiest questions. They then get harder as you progress through the test. The ACT questions are in random order.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: It can be a nice boost to your confidence to start off slowly and then ramp up to the more difficult parts of the test. It is also a great tool to help calm your nerves at the beginning of the test. If logical test progression is important to you, the SAT the better option.
Length of the Test and Time Allotment
With the ACT, you have 2 hours and 55 minutes to answer the 215 questions on that test. There are 154 questions on the SAT, and you have a total of 3 hours to answer them. You actually get more time to answer fewer questions with the SAT than the ACT. Part of the time difference can be explained by the complexity of the questions. As noted above, the Reading section of the SAT includes 2-part questions that rely on deeper reasoning skills. There is also the Math section of the SAT where you can’t use a calculator. Having extra time to answer long-form math problems is helpful. But even taking those differences into consideration, you simply have more time to answer each question on the SAT than you do on the ACT. Even the optional Essay question for each test is timed differently. You are allotted 40 minutes to complete the ACT Essay and 50 minutes to complete the SAT Essay.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: More questions in less time as found on the ACT may sound more stressful, but if you have good time management and test taking skills and are a strong reader with good recall, you may find the questions on the ACT more straightforward and better suited for you. If you prefer more time to focus and think through each question, then the SAT is the better choice.
One factor driving the popularity of the ACT is that some states are now requiring it for all their students. For the 2016-2017 school year, 14 states require the ACT while 8 require the SAT. Three states allow their students to choose which test they want to take. We expect more states to start mandating either test in the coming years. These state requirements are giving students the opportunity to take these tests at little or no cost. They are also opening doors to college for people who may not have considered it to be an option.
ACT vs SAT – What this means for you: If you live in a state that requires either test, it makes your choice a little easier! States that require college admission tests usually offer great study resources at little or no cost. Take advantage of the prep materials and study sessions offered through your school or state agencies that will help you prepare for the test.
Other Things to Consider
With few differences between the two tests and that fact that colleges accept either score with no preference, some students are opting to take both tests. They then choose their best score to put on their college application (or send in both to demonstrate their ambition). Doing this can be very time-consuming as there are different study materials for each test. We don’t recommend it. But if you are still unsure about which test you should take (or if you should take both!), Khan Academy offers free SAT practice tests. You can also see sample ACT questions on their website. These are good tools to help you decide which test you should take and thus to resolve the ACT vs. SAT issue.
Whether you take the SAT or the ACT, taking a good prep course will help you achieve the score you need to get into your top college. Check out our reviews of the Best ACT Prep Courses and Best SAT Prep Courses to find the one that is right for you.
Good luck on your exam!