Deciding whether to take the SAT or the ACT is a decision every college-bound student will face at some point. While you may have heard stories or stereotypes about both tests, the simple fact is that colleges accept both equally. Which test you ultimately decide to take comes down to a matter of personal preference. Therefore, it is important to do your research to determine which test best fits you. 💪
First, let’s look at the basic structure of each test:
Reading: 5 Passages, 65 minutes, 52 questions
Writing & Language: 4 Passages, 35 minutes, 44 questions
Math - No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions
Math - Calculator: 55 minutes, 38 questions
Essay (optional): 50 minutes
Total time (without essay): 3 hours
Total time (with essay): 3 hours, 50 minutes
English: 5 Passages, 45 minutes, 75 questions
Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions. A calculator is allowed on all math questions.
Reading: 4 Passages, 35 minutes, 40 questions
Science: 35 minutes, 40 question
Essay (optional): 40 minutes
Total time (without essay): 2 hours, 55 minutes
Total time (with essay): 3 hours, 35 minutes
As you can see, both tests run about 3-4 hours depending on whether or not you take the essay. Each test has Reading, English and Math sections, but the ACT has a separate Science section. The SAT has 154 questions in total, and the ACT has 215 questions in total. While this may look like a large discrepancy, SAT questions can require a little extra reasoning to get the correct answer, so more time is allowed per question. On the other hand, ACT questions tend to be very straightforward and to the point, so there’s less time to answer each question. It’s important to keep these details in mind when making your decision about which test to take. Now, let’s look at the differences in a little more depth:
Both tests will contain passages from fiction, social sciences, and natural sciences. The ACT will also have one Humanities-based passage. The SAT will also have one passage from the Great Global Conversation, which discusses US and World historical documents, civil rights, suffrage and similar topics. Two of the SAT Reading passages will include graphics (figures, charts, graphs) and ask questions that test basic graphic literacy. ACT passages will be slightly longer (~100-200 words) than SAT passages, but remember the SAT has one extra passage.
- SAT Reading: You have about 75 seconds to answer each question. The questions tend to go in order of the passage itself - use this information to guide you when answering questions. Passage difficulty can range from 9th grade up to college-level reading material.
- ACT Reading: You have about 50 seconds to answer each question. The questions do not go in order of the passage. Passage difficulty is at about the 11th-grade level on the ACT. The ‘EXCEPT’ questions can be time-consuming, so you may want to save those for last.
The main thing to remember about both tests is that the answers will be supported by the passage, so the answers are IN the passage - your job is to find and understand them.
✏ Writing & Language/English:
Both tests will measure your understanding of punctuation, grammar, and usage, sentence structure, strategy, organization and style. Furthermore, the SAT tests word choice (vocabulary) and graphic literacy (data interpretation) in the Writing & Language section. Of all the sections on both tests, these two mirror each other the most.
Both tests contain questions from algebra, geometry, data analysis, and trigonometry. The SAT has more data analysis/problem-solving questions (ratios, percentages, graphs), while the ACT has more advanced math questions (plane geometry/trigonometry). All of the ACT questions are multiple choice and allow you to use a calculator, but the SAT has a handful grid-in questions per math section, one of which no calculator usage is allowed. ACT math tends to be relatively straightforward, whereas SAT math can require in-depth thought.
The ACT Science section tests your interpretation, analysis and reasoning skills. You will be presented with a brief passage and accompanying graphs, charts, or figures. The questions will appear in one of three formats: data representation, research summaries or conflicting viewpoints. There is no specific scientific knowledge or recall required. In some ways the Science section is similar to the Reading section because they both apply similar comprehension and interpretation skill sets. Though there is no separate Science section on the SAT, graphs and tables appear throughout all sections of the SAT, and the accompanying questions require the same data interpretation skills as the ACT Science section.
The SAT essay will test your understanding of a one-page passage and ask you how the author builds his or her argument to persuade the audience. You should consider analyzing the evidence, reasoning, and style utilized by the author in the construction of your essay. The ACT essay will test how well you evaluate three different perspectives on a given issue and then demonstrate your own unique perspective in relation to the three provided. It requires you to directly tackle an issue and come up with supporting evidence to develop your argument. Think of the SAT essay as a critical analysis and think of the ACT essay as a debate.
☝ There’s no penalty for incorrect answers on either test, so you should never omit any questions.
So, after all of this information, here are my suggestions:
If you work well under time pressure and have a strong command of the content, tackle the ACT. It’s much more to the point and the answers should just pop up right in your head if you stay focused as you’re going through the different sections. You may encounter incredibly wordy questions, but they shouldn’t require much thought to figure out.
If you do well at making connections and can benefit from a little extra time for thought-processing, tackle the SAT. Most of the questions are based on evidence and context with a focus on problems with real-world applications. Some of the problems may require multiple steps to come up with the correct answer, but in general, nothing overly complex is involved.
✅ Final verdict:
The structure of each test and the material in each test are relatively similar enough that neither has a distinct edge over the other. Therefore, it all boils down to this: practice, practice, practice. You should carve out the time in your schedule to take a full-length practice SAT and a full-length practice ACT, making sure to follow the specific time limits for each. Under these conditions, the differences in the test will become much more apparent to you on a personal level. See which test you perform better on and then determine which sections you need to strengthen up on. From there, focus your energies on improving upon that particular test since it’s not necessary to take both. There are a variety of sources you can use to practice standardized testing, but it’s important to start early so you can make the progress you want and reach your full potential.
Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."