ACT vs SAT: Which Test is Right for Me?

ACT or SAT  
Which test is right for me?


edit Which Test to Take

The ACT is popular across the U.S., while the SAT is most popular in coastal states. Regardless of a student's location, most colleges use standardized tests as just one part of the admissions process and therefore have no strong preference for the ACT or SAT, only minimum score requirements on one or the other. However, some colleges require or prefer students take both the SAT and the ACT and, in some cases, SAT subject tests.

Students should examine admission guidelines and requirements for any colleges that they want to apply to, as this will help them decide which test to take or whether they need to take both. If either test is accepted in all their preferred schools, the choice then boils down to which test a student feels he or she has a better chance of scoring well on.

edit What Is Tested

There are four sections in the ACT: English, math, reading, and science. Including breaks, the test usually takes a little over four hours to complete. In contrast, the SAT has 10 sections that cover writing (English), math, and reading. Including breaks, the SAT takes a little over four and a half hours. Both tests have essay writing components; the ACT's essay prompt is optional (though requested by many colleges these days), while the SAT's is required.

How these mostly overlapping subjects are tested differs between the two tests. The ACT aims to be straightforward and tests a student's ability to find the right answer in large chunks of information and sometimes long questions. The SAT is a "reasoning" test, in that answering questions on it can be as much a matter of understanding the question as it is finding the right answer. The two tests are very similar in many ways, but they aim to reveal different things about a student.

English and Writing

The ACT gives students 45 minutes to get through a 75-question English section, which is always the first section students encounter in the ACT. Five mid-length passages appear in this section with corresponding questions which test grammar, punctuation, conciseness, and sentence and paragraph strategy (i.e., where a word, phrase, or sentence should be placed in a given text).

The SAT calls its English test sections Writing sections. There are at least two writing sections in each SAT: one that must be completed in 25 minutes and another that must be done in 10 minutes. Though the SAT's writing section tests most of the same grammatical and structural concepts that the ACT's English section does, questions are presented in a much different way, appearing in the form of individual sentences or paragraphs, as opposed to full passages.


Both the ACT and the SAT allow for the use of a calculator in their respective math sections and test similar mathematical concepts. Basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry questions appear on both tests. While there are no trigonometry questions in the SAT, a few appear in the ACT; neither has calculus questions. Formulas are given to students on the SAT, but not on the ACT, which requires students to learn and memorize formulas if they haven't already.

ACT math and SAT math differ in how they present the subject. The ACT always treats math as its second section in the test and gives students 60 minutes to answer 60 multiple-choice questions. The SAT has three math sections: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. One 25-minute section has 20 questions and is multiple choice only; the other 25-minute section has eight multiple-choice questions and 10 "show us your work" questions that require writing; the 20-minute section consists of 16 multiple-choice questions.

Critical Reading

Reading comprehension is tested in both the ACT and the SAT, but, again, how they approach the subject is different.

In the ACT, reading is always the third section of the test. Students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions on four passage types that always appear in the same order: prose, social science, humanities, and natural science. Each passage has 10 questions that cover fact-finding, inference, main ideas, points of view, etc. ACT reading passages are often long, so the section is all about using time wisely.

Three critical reading sections exist in the SAT: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. Each opens with vocabulary questions where students must choose the correct word or words from a multiple choice list to fill in blanks found in a sentence. After that, the SAT has fictional and nonfictional passages with questions about facts, inferences, main ideas, etc. The passages may be short or long, and in some cases students will have to juggle two passages at once to compare and contrast their concepts. SAT reading is less about strategy than the ACT's reading section; it is about figuring out what is being asked and what is being said in a passage. For that reason, most SAT reading questions include include line numbers.


One of the biggest differences between the ACT and the SAT is that the ACT has a science section, while the SAT does not. ACT science is the fourth section in the test, and students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions.

Students do not need prior scientific knowledge to get through this section, though it might help. Instead, this section tests a student's ability to read and comprehend scientific research based on study summaries, data in charts and graphs, and conflicting viewpoints. The science covered includes biology, chemistry, earth/space sciences, and physics. Sometimes students need to draw inferences or conclusions based on the information they are given.


Both the ACT and the SAT have essay prompts; the ACT's is optional, while the SAT's is required. The ACT gives students 30 minutes to write a response, whereas the SAT only gives 25 minutes. Prompts are slightly different between the two tests, but both the ACT and the SAT test a student's ability to write critically, structure an argument, and use correct grammar.


College Board, the maker of the SAT, always includes a variable section in its tests. It may be on any of the subjects—writing, reading, or math. It is used for testing new types of questions. Students have no way of knowing which section is the variable, but the section is not scored.


It is up to a student as to which scores a college will see. SAT students are given the option to fill out a section in their test booklets to have College Board send their scores to certain schools, but doing this may come with a downside, as colleges will then see a score history; most students will be better off sending scores themselves, rather than letting College Board handle it for them. However, some colleges specifically request a score history. As such, many students retake the ACT and SAT at least once but try to limit many retakes.


The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, as is each section. A composite score—again, out of 36—is derived from averaging all section scores. The science section is often graded on a curve.

Each section of the SAT receives a score between 200 and 800, and there is a composite score out of 2400. Sometimes reading and math sections are viewed together out of a score of 1600, with the writing score put to the side.

Guessing and Omissions

There is no wrong answer penalty in the ACT, so guessing is always to a student's benefit. Using elimination strategies to make better, more educated guesses can improve an ACT test-taker's score considerably.

The SAT does have a wrong answer penalty: students lose a ¼ of a point for each wrong answer. For the SAT, clever omission strategies should be used, as an omitted question neither gives a student a point nor takes one away.

Essay Evaluation

Both the ACT and the SAT score essays on a scale of 0 to 12. Each essay is graded by two people who score the work out of 6. The two grades are added together to create a composite score, which is then often combined with a writing or English score.

College Board's SAT essay grading has been criticized in the past for its bias toward longer essays and big vocabulary. Les Perelman, a professor at MIT, gave a presentation on how formulaic writing with a historical quote and "big words" goes a long way to acing an SAT essay.


Frequent, timed practice greatly improves test scores, as does private tutoring.

The ACT's consistent layout allows for strategic test-taking. Generally speaking, ACT test-takers should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and mathematical formulas. They should also familiarize themselves with reading scientific data that is presented in charts and graphs. For reading, they need to be prepared to skim or take notes—anything to save time to get through questions as quickly and accurately as possible.

Likewise, SAT test-takers will benefit from reviewing grammar, punctuation, and mathematical concepts; formulas will be provided on the test, but being familiar with them is helpful. Students should be prepared to "reason" their way through the reading section, to decipher the meaning of questions and passages. Vocabulary practice is a must for SAT test-takers, as is knowing that vocab questions start easy in each section but steadily grow more difficult (i.e., vocab question #1 is easy, while vocab question #8 might be difficult and warrant omission).

SAT for April 2016 and Beyond

The SAT is changing in the near future. In March 2014, College Board revealed the SAT is undergoing a major redesign in response to criticism that the current test is biased and does not provide an accurate portrayal of students' abilities. As a result, the SAT will be very different starting in April 2016 and thereafter with College Board saying the new test "...will ask students to apply a deep understanding of the few things shown by current research to matter most for college readiness and success."

Some major changes include the following:

  • A scoring scale of 400 to 1600.
  • Some locations will allow students to take the SAT on computers.
  • College Board is teaming up with Khan Academy to provide free, online test prep. This is a major shift for the SAT, which has not always been straightforward and curriculum-based like the ACT.
  • The writing and critical reading sections will be combined into one section type.
  • The vocabulary sections that the SAT is so well known for will be scrapped in favor of more ACT-like vocabulary in context questions.
  • Some parts of the math sections will ban calculators.
  • There will be a 50-minute, optional essay writing component, wherein students will be asked to analyze a provided essay, discuss how it is structured, and explain whether it adequately communicates its ideas.
  • There will be no penalty for wrong answers. The SAT will become exactly like the ACT in this regard.

More details are to come as the new test nears. Students, teachers, and parents are able to sign up for updates about the SAT on the College Board website

from The Princeton Review....

It's all about the numbers. Some students end up scoring substantially higher on the SAT; others do better on the ACT. In lieu of a crystal ball, we created The Princeton Review Assessment (PRA) designed to help you determine which test is better fit with your abilities.

To help you zero in on the right exam, here are seven key differences:

1.  ACT questions tend to be more straightforward.
ACT questions are often easier to understand on a first read. On the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you're being asked before you can start solving the problem. For example, here are sample questions from the SAT essay and the ACT writing test (their name for the essay):

    SAT: What is your view of the claim that something unsuccessful can still              have some value?

    ACT: In your view, should high schools become more tolerant of                          cheating?

2. The SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary.
If you're an ardent wordsmith, you'll love the SAT. If words aren't your thing, you may do better on the ACT.

3.  The ACT has a Science section; the SAT does not.
You don't need to know anything about amoebas or chemical reactions for the ACT Science section. It is meant to test your reading and reasoning skills based upon a given set of facts. But if you're a true science-phobe, the SAT might be a better fit.

4. The ACT tests more advanced math concepts.
In addition to basic arithmetic, algebra I and II, and geometry, the ACT tests your knowledge of trigonometry, too. That said, the ACT Math section is not necessarily harder, since many students find the questions to be more straightforward than those on the SAT.

5. The ACT Writing Test is optional on test day, but required by many schools.
The 25-minute SAT essay is required and is factored into your writing score. The 30-minute ACT writing test is optional. If you choose to take it, it is not included in your composite score — schools will see it listed separately. Many colleges require the writing section of the ACT, so be sure to check with the schools where you are applying before opting out.

6. The SAT is broken up into more sections.
On the ACT, you tackle each content area (English, Math, Reading and Science) in one big chunk, with the optional writing test at the end. On the SAT, the content areas (Critical Reading, Math and Writing) are broken up into 10 sections, with the required essay at the beginning. You do a little math, a little writing, a little critical reading, a little more math, etc. When choosing between the SAT and ACT, ask yourself if moving back and forth between content areas confuse you or keep you energized?

7. The ACT is more of a "big picture" exam.

College admissions officers care about how you did on each section of the SAT. On the ACT, they're most concerned with your composite score. So if you're weak in one content area but strong in others, you could still end up with a very good ACT score and thus make a strong impression with the admissions committee.