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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Barnwell

The ACT vs. the SAT: Choose the Right Test for You

If there is one question I get asked the most about test prep, it is this: “Should I take the ACT or the SAT?”

The fact of the matter is, the answer to this question is highly personal and won’t be the same for every student. Each test offers potential advantages and drawbacks. What matters, in the end, is which test YOU are best suited for. In order to know, you will need to first consider a few things about each exam.

Test content:

The ACT and SAT both cover very similar content, but there are a few key differences that, depending on your specific strengths, might matter for you. First, the ACT contains a science section (which actually has nothing at all do with science!), which the SAT does not have. The ACT “science” section is actually testing your ability to quickly identify connections and trends, and make conclusions based on charts and tables of data. It is a very specific skill, and especially with the time constraints that the ACT places on you, but the passages and tables/charts could just as easily be about history, literature, or psychology and still test the same skills. So, no actual scientific knowledge is needed!

The math section on the ACT will include a higher percentage/number of geometry and trigonometry questions, and will also cover a few problem types that you won’t see on the SAT, like matrices, graphing trigonometric functions, and logarithms. The ACT will allow you the use of your calculator for all math questions, whereas the SAT will require you to solve about 35% of the math questions without one. Lastly, while you will have a short list of formulas and rules provided for you on the SAT math sections, you won’t be given any formulas on the ACT math test, so you’ll need to memorize everything.

Now that the SAT no longer focuses on obscure and challenging vocabulary words in the reading section (you will still be asked a few “vocabulary in context” questions for certain passages, but as the name suggests, you’ll have the benefit of context to determine the author’s intended use of the word), the reading content between the ACT and SAT is almost identical. This means that, by prepping for one of the tests, you will also have reviewed the content tested on the other.

The essay, which is optional on both tests, will ask you different types of questions. On the ACT, you will be given three arguments, and then asked to choose the best and support your choice with specific reasoning and examples. The SAT essay, on the other hand, will ask you to read an article or passage and then analyze the author’s argument, using evidence and reasoning. One is not necessarily harder than the other- they are just different.

Test Format:

The number one difference- and it’s HUGE- between the test formats for the ACT and SAT is timing. Here is where you’ll see a clear contrast between the two exams, which will most likely be the deciding factor on which direction you’ll go. Let’s take a look at how each test section breaks down, including the number of questions, and both total and average time per problem:

As you can see, the SAT has fewer questions overall. Additionally, you get substantially more time per question across the board on the SAT:

  • 33% more time per question on the english/writing + language section

  • 44% more time per question on the reading section

  • 38% more time per question for the math section

It might appear that the SAT is the way to go, based on this alone. Perhaps, but the most important thing in choosing which test to study for and take is to identify which test is the best for YOU.

If you are someone who struggles with time management, are easily stressed by time constraints, or have trouble with extended periods of sustained focus, then the SAT is probably the test for you. On the other hand, if you are great with timing, and able to focus and power through large amounts of information quickly and accurately, and aren’t deterred by strict time constraints, then you will have a certain advantage on the ACT, which you should use to your benefit!

Which test suits you best?

Now that you have a better understanding of the inner workings of each test, you are probably leaning more toward one of the tests over the other. In fact, you may already know which test you’d like to take. If so, then great!

If you’re not completely sold either way, however, then the best way to know for sure whether the ACT or the SAT is the best match for you, is to take an official practice test of each. This will require a total of about 4 hours per test (so a total of 8 hours over the course of two weekends), but it will allow you to get a better feel for each test, and also to compare your scores between the tests to see which one came out ahead.

NOTE: If you decide to take a practice ACT and SAT, then you will need to be diligent about creating identical testing conditions for each practice test. For example, if you wake up early to take the practice ACT on a Saturday morning at 8:00am after having a balanced breakfast, then you’ll need to do the exact same thing the following Saturday for your practice SAT. The reason for this is important: in order to have a clear, reliable idea about which test is best for you, you'll need to ensure that the tests (ACT or SAT) are the only factor that is changing. All other conditions (time of day, whether you’ve had a good night’s rest, a decent breakfast, quiet testing area, etc.) should be as identical as possible, so that any change in your score can be attributed to the test itself, and nothing else. Once you have scored your tests, you can use my ACT-to-SAT score conversion chart to determine which one came out ahead.

Remember: your decision should be based solely on YOUR needs, rather than on what any other student may be doing. Identify your specific strengths and weaknesses when it comes to testing, and if necessary, take a practice test, and make your decision based on that. As soon as you choose your test, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running!

REMEMBER: the most important things for you to do are to 1) pick the right test for YOU, and 2) to GET STARTED! The number one indicator of success for test prep is how long of a runway you give yourself to prepare. Start early enough, and the process will be manageable and successful. Wait, and you’ll have higher stress and lower scores for no good reason. Even the best-laid plan won’t serve you if you haven’t budgeted the time you’ll need to succeed. So, get to it!

Thanks for reading, and good luck with selecting your test and getting started! Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions you may have as you go along. I look forward to my next opportunity to help you with your test prep!

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