SAT vs. ACT: What’s Right for You?

The SAT and the ACT are standardized tests for high school students that most colleges require you to submit to be a candidate for admission. While the two tests assess similar skills, there are key differences between the tests that can play to a student’s test-taking strengths. In order to maximize your performance, you should study for and take the test that is most suited to your strengths. Here are a few of the key differences between the SAT and the ACT to help you decide which test is right for you.

Sections & Content

The SAT contains three sections: Reading, Math, and Writing/Essay. The ACT contains four sections: Reading, Math, English, and Science.

  1. Math

The math on the SAT tends to be more algebra-based, whereas the math on the ACT tends to cover a broader range of topics and focus far more on geometry and trigonometry. Additionally, the SAT provides necessary formulas at the beginning of the test, whereas the ACT does not. The SAT math questions have two distinct classifications: Calculator and No Calculator, whereas a calculator is allowed for all questions on the math portion of the ACT.

2. Reading

The SAT reading questions always proceed in chronological order and give line numbers for reference when asking detail-oriented questions. The ACT does not follow either of those rules, which can make detail-oriented questions far more time consuming. The SAT also asks students to support their answers to reading questions using evidence from the passage, whereas the ACT does not.

3. English/Writing

The SAT writing section focuses on vocabulary and writing style. The ACT writing section is more focused on grammar rules and punctuation. Both the SAT and the ACT essay portions are now optional, although many colleges will ask you to submit them.

4. Science

The SAT does not have a science portion. The ACT does, and while it may sound intimidating, the science section does not focus on concrete scientific knowledge, but rather on the interpretation of data and graphs. Knowing the scientific context is helpful but not necessary.

Scoring Guidelines

The ACT is scored on a 1–36 composite scale (not including essay), whereas the SAT is scored on a 400–1600 composite scale (plus essay). Neither test penalizes for incorrect answers; however, because the ACT gives less time per question than the SAT (according to Magoosh, you get an average of 50 seconds per question on the ACT and 70 seconds per question on the SAT), it is more beneficial to skip questions on the ACT than the SAT.

Which Test Should You Take?

At the end of the day, the best way to determine whether to take the SAT or ACT is to take a diagnostic or practice test for each one. If you one of your scores is significantly better than the other, that is probably the test you should focus on. If, on the other hand, your scores are about the same, you may want to consider taking both tests. Whichever test (or tests) you end up taking, by following these guidelines, considering your test-taking strengths and weaknesses, and by using practice material, you will be sure to make the choice that is best for you.