SAT vs. ACT - Which Should I Take?
Vince: Our tutor Bridget Vaughan has written a great article outlining the differences between the SAT and ACT. It can be a borderline decision, so feel free to get in touch with one of our tutors if you have questions about which test might be better for you.
Your older brother and sister both took the SAT...someone somewhere told you the ACT is easier...supposedly, colleges like the SAT better...should you just prepare for both to hedge your bets? These are all-too-common thoughts of students facing what is often the first big choice in their college preparation process. First things first: No, one test is not drastically easier. No, one test is not preferred by all colleges. No, you (probably) shouldn’t prepare for both!
Let’s sort out the truth about these tests, put to rest your concerns, and help you decide the best choice for your learning style.
Despite what you may have heard, the SAT and ACT are more similar now than ever before. A quick history lesson might help clarify the misconceptions and outdated comparisons that often float around online forums like College Confidential. The SAT started in the 1920s, and the ACT followed along in the late 1950s as a Midwestern alternative to the popular SAT. For some years this geographical difference remained; people in the Midwest and Central United States opted for the ACT and those on the coasts overwhelmingly chose the SAT. Over time, as the ACT gained popularity, these geographical preferences have become increasingly negligible. Today, the number of students taking the SAT and ACT each year is not dramatically different.
In Spring of 2016, the ‘New SAT’ was created, and the differences between the test formats dropped significantly. Nonetheless, some notable differences remain. Let’s take a look at a comprehensive comparison:
Taking a lengthy standardized test is likely not your favorite way to spend 3-4 hours on a Saturday morning. Regardless of your choice, you’ll be spending the better half of the day in test mode. Both the SAT and ACT take roughly 3-4 hours depending on if you choose to take the optional essay. Technically, both become shorter if you opt to take the test without the essay component.
Think carefully, though, before seeing this as an easy way out. Many colleges and universities require their applicants to take the SAT or ACT “with writing”, meaning with the essay section. Bear in mind that your essay score is separate from the composite score of the rest of the test, so there is no need to worry that it will drop your overall score if you perform poorly on the essay. Let’s take a look at how long* your morning will be both with and without the essay option:
- The SAT will take 3 hours without, and 3 hours 50 minutes with the essay
- The ACT will take 2 hours + 55 minutes without, and 3 hours + 40 minutes with the essay.
*These times don’t include some well-earned intermittent breaks.
Both the SAT and ACT take about 3 hours without, and 4 hours with the optional essay section. There’s no way around the overall time commitment of this test! Early preparation and regular practice tests will help build up your stamina to take some of the sting away come test day.
Time by Section
The SAT and ACT both have sections in math, reading, and grammar (called “Writing & Language” for the SAT and “English” for the ACT), and both offer an optional essay section. Only the ACT has a science section, and only the SAT has a non-calculator math section. We’ll get into each section in more detail later to help make sense of the differences.
Here is a section-by-section breakdown, in the order you will see the sections on the test:
Reading (65 min, 52 questions)
Writing & Language (35 min, 44 questions)
Math, no calculator (25 min, 20 questions)
Math, with calculator (55 min, 38 questions)
Optional Essay (50 min)
English (45 min, 75 questions)
Math (60 min, 60 questions)
Reading (35 min, 40 questions)
Science (35 min, 40 questions)
Optional Essay (40 min)
Despite taking a similar length of time overall, the SAT and ACT do not allot the same time per question. Overall, the SAT has 154 questions, rounding out to roughly 1 minute and 10 seconds each. The ACT, conversely, has 215 questions at about 49 seconds each. Now, these times per question are only averages, as both tests will provide more time for reading questions and less for grammar questions, for example. Nonetheless, this difference is reflective of one of the most important distinctions between the tests. Those who often feel pressured for time when taking tests, or value having potential time to double-check answers may feel more comfortable with the SAT. This is particularly important for those who read at a slower pace and value additional time for reading comprehension questions.
The ACT is the more rushed of the two, allotting less time for a greater number of questions. The SAT provides additional time, particularly on the reading section.
The SAT is scored between 400-1600. Math comprises half of your score, while Reading and Grammar (called “Writing & Language”) combine for the remaining half. The SAT essay is given scores of 2-8 for three dimensions reflected in your essay; reading, analysis, and writing skills.
The ACT is scored between 1-36, with equal parts of your score coming from each of the four sections. The ACT essay is scored between 2-12.
Score choice, an option to send your best section scores from each test you’ve taken, is offered by both the ACT and SAT. You will need to check if the colleges you are applying to allow score choice, however, as many do not! If your college doesn’t accept score choice, that just means you’ll send the best overall score you received for one test date.
Due to the scoring methods of each test, your math section will count for more of your overall score on the SAT than the ACT. If you feel fairly strong in your math skills and don’t mind the non-calculator component of the SAT, your overall score will be all the better for it. If, conversely, math is one of your weakest sections, the ACT composite score will work in your favor, as the math section accounts for just ¼ instead of ½ of your total score.
The SAT and ACT are scored on different scales. In both cases, the essay score is separate. If you are stronger in math, SAT scoring offers you an advantage as the math accounts for half of your composite score rather than just a quarter, as it does on the ACT.
Section by Section
Now that we have a handle on the general formats, let’s break down the differences and similarities by section.
Topics covered: Both the ACT and SAT test arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Because the SAT has to make up for its lack of a science section, they also include some data analysis in their math section. Generally speaking, the ACT is more geometry focused, while the SAT is more algebra focused. The ACT will also expect that you’ve seen logarithms and graphs of trigonometric functions before, while these topics are absent on the SAT.
Formulas: The SAT provides 12 geometry formulas and 3 laws on the front sheet of both math sections. You’ll still need to memorize a few formulas to be fully prepared, but this is a helpful head start. The ACT, on the other hand, doesn’t provide any formulas.
Format: The biggest difference is that the SAT math is split into a calculator and no-calculator section. The ACT allows you to use a calculator throughout. The security blanket of a calculator can be very appealing and can often ease nerves. Keep in mind, though, that most of the ACT and SAT calculator section questions don’t truly require a calculator, and can usually be solved with some pencil and paper work.
In both cases, the problems in the section will tend to get harder as you go. In the case of the SAT, toward the end, they will also incorporate what they call “grid-in” questions. These require you to bubble in your own numeric answer in the absence of any multiple choice options. In this way, the ACT is better suited for those who wish to have multiple choices for all questions.
On top of a lot of similar material, the SAT incorporates some data analysis (think tables and graphs) and the ACT incorporates some trig function graphs and logarithms. The SAT is better suited for those who prefer algebra and feel comfortable with or without a calculator & with or without multiple choice. The ACT is more approachable for those who enjoy geometry, want consistent multiple choice, use of a calculator throughout, and don’t mind additional formula memorization.
Topics covered: The SAT has five passages total with one passage each in literature, history, social science, and two science passages. The ACT has four passages total with one passage each in humanities, social studies, natural science, and literary fiction. As you may have noticed, these are simply different titles for the same topics! Additionally, both the SAT and ACT will have one passage that is “paired,” meaning it consists of two shorter passages, which you will compare and contrast.
Question types: The SAT questions are chronological, and include “evidence-support” questions, which require you to locate specific lines in the passage to support an answer. Generally speaking, the SAT will provide passages at more advanced reading levels than the ACT might. Additionally, some sneaky science will work its way into the SAT reading in the form of understanding graphs and data tables. The ACT, on the other hand, does not have any evidence-support questions, and questions are not chronological.
The ACT is better suited for quick readers who don’t mind questions bouncing around the passage. The SAT is preferred by students who like taking time to locate answers in the text and don’t mind more dense reading material.
This one is easy! There are no notable differences between the ACT and SAT in the materials tested or format of this section. The only difference is the name. The SAT refers to their grammar section as “Writing and Language,” while the ACT just calls it “English.”
Grammar sections are nearly identical between the tests. It’s called “Writing and Language” by the SAT and “English by the ACT.
The ACT has a science section which tests your ability to read data tables and graphs, and asks you to apply an understanding of the scientific method. The SAT doesn’t have a science section at all, instead slipping some sneaky science (in the form of data tables and graphs) into the reading, math, and even grammar sections.
The ACT has a science section, so if reading about experiments and interpreting data is your jam, you might enjoy having a whole section devoted to this. If you’d like to minimize (though not eliminate) these things, consider the SAT.
The SAT essay starts with a sizable passage similar to those you would find in the reading section. They then ask you to write an essay explaining how the author uses evidence, reasoning, and style to make their argument. This is very similar to the writing you likely do in your regular English class. The ACT, on the other hand, will ask that you put your own voice into an essay. They will provide three different perspectives on a modern issue like artificial intelligence. They’ll ask that you state your own perspective and compare and contrast with those given.
In both essays, it is very important to use evidence or examples, clear reasoning, and logical organization. If writing essays for English assignments is one of your strengths, and you don’t mind taking some time to analyze this additional reading passage, the SAT is the better choice. If you are great at thinking up examples and taking a persuasive stance using your own opinion, the ACT will fit your writing style best.
Lean toward the SAT if you’d rather read a passage and analyze the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos of it in a literary manner. Go for the ACT if you like persuasive writing, drawing comparisons between arguments, and providing detailed examples.
When is the test?
The SAT is offered 7 times a year, in August, October, November, December, March, April, May, and June. As of 2018, the ACT is offered 7 times a year: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. If you live in New York, the ACT is not available in February and July. If you’re taking the test as a state requirement, it may be administered any time, and won’t be on one of the national test dates.
Registration for the SAT opens roughly 4 weeks before test day, and late registration (requiring a late fee) closes about 10 days before the test date.
Registration for the ACT opens about 5-6 weeks before test day, and late registration (requiring a late fee) closes about 20 days before the test date.
The SAT is $46 without the essay and $60 with the essay. Fee waivers are available for eligible students, and cover late fees as well.
-Late fee: $29
-Change of test date/center: $29
-Additional score reports (after four free) to send scores to schools: $12
The ACT is $42.50 without the essay, and $58.50 with the essay. Fee waivers are available for eligible students.
-Late fee: $29.50
-Change of test date/center: $26
-Additional score reports (after four free) to send scores to schools: $13
Extended Time & Accommodations
Both the SAT and ACT offer extended time and/or special testing accommodations, such as computer-based testing. These must be applied to and organized in advance.
On the SAT, 50% extended time requires students to stay on the section given until time is up. On the ACT, 50% extended time is self-paced, letting students move ahead to the next section early or late as long as they finish the test within the total allotted time.
On the SAT, 100% extended time can be split over two days at a maximum. On the ACT, 100% extended time can be split into one section per day at a maximum. In most of these cases, students will take these tests at their regular school rather than a testing site.
College preference for either the SAT or ACT is a myth! Both the SAT and ACT are accepted by every four-year US college and university. The colleges and universities you apply to will, however, determine whether you take your test with the essay option, and whether score choice is accepted.
Regardless of what state you live in, you can take whichever test you choose on your own time. However, some states will require that you take one as a part of their general state testing procedures for high schoolers.
States that require the ACT:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
States that require the SAT:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
What to do now
You have now learned more than you ever wished to know about the ACT and SAT, but where does that leave you? The good news is that you are now halfway done with the decision process. Given the above details and differences, you’ll have an inkling as to which test will suit you best. Time to put it to the test!
You should take a full, timed practice ACT and SAT each before finalizing your choice. Be sure to find a quiet place to work - clear off a corner of the dining table on a weekend morning or find a nook in your local public library. Set that phone on airplane mode, watch the clock, and cut yourself off after time is up for each section. Full tests and their solutions are available online. Compare your scores by either comparing the percentiles or using the concordance table produced by The College Board, the company that creates the SAT*.
*New concordance tables are in development to be released summer of 2018
Once you have followed these steps, there will likely be a very clear best choice. If your scores are nearly identical, rely more heavily on which sections you feel better adept at, and which test felt smoother to take. The best news of all is that from this point forward, you only need to prepare for the test of your choice. There is no clear benefit, and often a detriment, to trying to prepare for both simultaneously.
Once you’ve selected your test of choice, you’ll be ready to dive into test preparation knowing this first big decision is behind you!