*Updated October 14, 2020
The ACT and SAT are standardized tests required by most colleges to gauge your level of college readiness. According to Zach Goldberg, spokesperson for the CollegeBoard, which owns and makes the SAT, although the number of test-optional schools are rising, 85 percent of college applications are still sent to schools requiring either the SAT or ACT scores.
So, it’s safe to say that the question of whether to take or not take the test is already answered for you. Yes, schools want to see your score. However, what about the next question? Which one should you take? This can be a little murky.
The collective opinion of most experts is that there is no downright easier test. They test on similar subjects and require about the same amount of preparation time. Both tests are given 7 times a year and last about 4 hours each.
Even the numbers show that there is no single test that is exceedingly more popular with students. In the class of 2020, nearly 2.2 million students took the SAT and nearly 1.67 million students took the ACT. It is unclear how many students took both, which is a common practice among students.
However, if you don’t want to take both exams, there are key differences in content, format and resources that could make one test more preferable than the other. Consider these differences and choose the right test for you.
Here is what you need to know to choose the right test for you.
What are the differences in content between ACT and SAT?
Although the ACT and SAT tests on similar subjects, reading, writing, math and science, the way and the extent each subject is tested on differ. So, depending on your personal test-taking strength, one test may seem easier than the other. Ask yourself the following questions and see which test is a better fit for you.
A. Reading section
#1: Are you good at locating information from reading passages without line numbers?
The SAT reading sections have line numbers, which make it easy for you to locate specific information from a passage. The ACT reading sections, however, don’t give line numbers, so it’s not as easy to go back and find specific information from a passage. If you tend to struggle with locating information from passages without line numbers, you might end up wasting a lot of time on simply turning pages back and forth.
#2: Are you okay with questions in random order?
Unlike in the ACT reading sections, questions in the SAT reading sections always flow in chronological order, meaning the order of the passage to which they refer. Even if you’re unsure about a question, you can still guess where in the passage the answer for that question might be hiding by looking at where the question is placed. For example, in the SAT reading section, if you’re unsure about a question that comes second to last, you shouldn’t be looking for an answer in the first paragraph.
B. Writing section
#3: Are you good with punctuation and sentence structure?
While both the ACT and the SAT test grammar in their writing sections, the ACT tends to have more questions on punctuation and sentence structure and the SAT tends to ask more questions on writing style and word/phrase choices.
#4: Do you struggle with vocabulary?
In the Writing and Reading sections, the SAT tends to test vocabulary a little more than the ACT.
C. Math section
#5: Are you good with geometry and trigonometry?
To start, the ACT math covers a wider range of math concepts, with higher focus on geometry and trigonometry than the SAT math section. While geometry and trigonometry make up 35–45 percent and 7 percent on the ACT, respectively, they make up only 10 percent and 5 percent on the SAT.
Also, the ACT tests a few concepts that the SAT doesn’t test at all, such as matrices, graphs of trig functions and logarithms. The SAT math section focuses mostly on algebra.
However, the ACT math section doesn’t give any math formulas, but the SAT math section gives most of the major math formulas. Still, the irony is that all of these math formulas pertain to geometry, which isn’t a big part of the SAT math sections.
#6: Do you struggle without a calculator?
While the ACT math section allows you to use a calculator for all questions, the SAT math section doesn’t allow a calculator for 20 out of 58 questions in total. However, note that all questions on both the ACT and SAT math sections can be solved without a calculator. With that said, the SAT’s “No Calculator” questions require more reasoning than arithmetic skills.
D. Science section
#7: Are you good with science concepts?
To be clear, both the ACT and the SAT test on science concepts. Although the SAT doesn’t have an official section called the science section, other SAT sections still require science concepts, such as skills to read graphs and charts. Plus, the ACT science section doesn’t ask for actual scientific facts, such as freezing points or different names of elements on the periodic table.
However, students who struggle with science in general can still feel intimidated by the ACT’s science section for two reasons. First, having the official section called the science section, the ACT tends to use a lot of scientific language and terms. Second, the science section factors into your total score for the ACT. So, if you’re bad at science but are taking the ACT, you’re very likely going to worry about your low science score affecting your total score as well.
E. Essay section
#8: Do you feel more comfortable offering your own opinion than analyzing a passage?
While both the ACT and the SAT have one optional essay, one asks for an analysis of the passage and another asks for an opinion on the issue.
The SAT essay gives you a passage to read and asks you to analyze the author’s argument using evidence and reasoning. You are asked to point out different rhetorical devices the author used and how they were successful or unsuccessful at persuading potential readers. You are not asked to give your own opinion. On the other hand, the ACT gives you a passage about an issue to read and asks you to analyze different perspectives on this issue. You are asked to give your own opinion on the issue.
What are the differences in format between the ACT and SAT?
Now that we’ve covered the content, let’s see what differences the two tests have in their format.
#9: Are you good with time management during tests?
While both tests last about nearly 4 hours — to be specific, the entire ACT takes 3 hours and 35 minutes and the SAT 3 hours and 50 minutes — the total number of questions differ by 61 questions. The SAT lasts 15 minutes more than the ACT, but has 61 questions less. In other words, the ACT gives much less time per question.
Look below for how much time you have for each question in both tests.
To be clear, a strategic test taker will not allot the same amount of time for each question because it’s smarter to sweep through easy questions and take more time on hard ones. However, the fact that you have 61 more questions to answer on the ACT might be enough for you to make up your mind on which test to take.
#10: Do you struggle really badly with any of the sections other than the essay?
First, note that the essay section doesn’t really count because it is graded separately in both tests.
Second, since the ACT has 4 sections factoring into the final score rather than 3 in the SAT, each section accounts for less in your total score.
For example, let’s say you got a very low score on the math section in both the ACT and the SAT. While that same bad score will account for only one-fourth of your total score on the ACT, it will account for one-third of your total score on the SAT. With the SAT, your bad score has 8 percent (33 percent vs. 25 percent for the ACT) more of an importance to your total score. In other words, your bad math score won’t negatively affect your total score on the ACT as much as it will on the SAT.
Lastly, the same logic goes for the ACT math section, which gives you 5 possible answer choices instead of 4 choices given in the SAT math section.
For example, knowing that both tests use rights-only scoring, let’s say you decided to guess on a question. In the SAT math section, you would have a 25-percent chance of getting it right. But in the ACT math section, you would have a 20-percent chance of getting it right. In other words, even though you’re guessing in both tests, the SAT math section gives you 5 percent higher probability of getting a question correct.
#11: Do you struggle without multiple choices?
The SAT math section contains 13 grid-ins, or student-produced response questions, for which you need to fill in your own answer. In other words, with 22 percent of SAT math questions, you don’t get that minimum 25 percent chance of getting a question correct. However, the ACT only has multiple-choice questions in all 4 sections.
What are the differences in resources between the ACT and SAT?
By now, you may have already made up your mind. But, there’s one more thing. And it’s big enough to be a game changer for many students. How does each test fare with budget, online resources and more? Let’s find out.
#12: Do you need financial assistance?
As a start, the SAT is about $3 cheaper than the ACT. The SAT costs $47.50 for the test only and $64.50 for the optional essay included, while the ACT costs $50.50 for the test only and $67 for the optional essay included. However, even if you’re struggling financially, this $3 difference may not be enough to choose one test over the other.
To be clear, both tests can be budget-friendly. The ACT and SAT both have a wide variety of free test prep tools online with awesome quality. Also, for students with proven financial need, both tests provide fee waivers that include not only free test registration, but also other resources, such as free score reports to colleges, free prep tools, and even waiver of college application fees at participating schools.
However, after my own research, I found it much easier to find information on the SAT fee waiver than that of the ACT. Unlike the ACT website, the CollegeBoard website is very direct and well designed for first timers to clearly understand critical information, such as eligibility, other perks, and where and how to register for the fee waiver. Plus, unlike the ACT, the SAT fee waiver covers late registration fee and fees for SAT Subject Tests.
#13: Does your state require high school students to take the ACT?
More states are requiring students to take one test over another as a part of their statewide testing regime. In other words, your state is very likely going to provide in-school prep for a specific test.
For example, if you live in Montana, the state not only requires you to take the ACT, but also pays for the test. The SAT would need to have a really reasonable aspect concerning its content or format to look more preferable to you, so that you would spend time studying for it along with the state-required ACT.
To check whether your state requires either one of the tests, click here.
If you’re reading this part of our guide, you’re probably thinking you know which test is better for you. And you may be right. If you answered mostly “Yes” for our questions, the ACT is a better fit. If you answered mostly “No,” the SAT is a better fit. Now, what if you answered half and half?
For those who are stuck in the middle, my last piece of advice for you is to actually take both tests and see them for yourself. Download a free ACT practice test as well as a free SAT practice test and proctor yourself as if it were a real test. Use this conversion tool by PrepScholar to compare both scores. Then, you’ll definitely know which one is right for you.
Hyeyeun Jeon is from South Korea and a graduate from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in Professional Writing and International Relations. She is passionate about non-fiction storytelling. She loves reading, watching, writing and producing stories about extraordinary lives of everyday people.