SAT vs. ACT: Do you know which test is right for you?

SAT vs. ACT:

Maybe you took the PSAT once (or twice) and perhaps now you’re prepping for the SAT. But what’s all this about the ACT? You might be asking yourself, “Why are some people I know taking it? Should I be taking it too? Do I have to take it?”

With so much to think about as you start preparing to apply to college, it can be difficult to know exactly which steps are right for you, especially when it comes to standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT (we’ll leave APs and SAT Subject Tests for a different post, coming to the blog soon).

Here are the key differences between the SAT and the ACT:


Math –the SAT tests only arithmetic, algebra, and geometry; the ACT tests these, as well as basic  trigonometry.

Reading – the SAT tests critical reading skills; the ACT tests reading comprehension skills; ACT passages and questions are usually more straightforward than those on the SAT.

Grammar – the SAT tests a variety of grammar concepts (and a little bit of punctuation and style); the ACT tests a more basic set of grammar concepts and a broader range of punctuation (and some concepts relating to organization of ideas).

Science – the ACT tests interpretation of scientific charts and graphs and trend analysis of data; the SAT has no science section.

Essay writing – the SAT essay involves using specific examples to argue a thesis on an abstract topic (e.g., “Humanity progresses only by challenging established rules”; the ACT essay involves using logical reasoning to argue a thesis on a concrete, relevant topic relevant (e.g., “High school students should have to perform community service in order to graduate”).

Strategies – the SAT penalizes wrong answers; the ACT does not. If you have a hard time eliminating answer choices and making educated guesses, the ACT might be easier for you.

Timing/Format – the SAT is broken up into nine shorter sections (all of which are 25 minutes or fewer); the ACT is broken up into four longer sections. If you have trouble staying focused through a continuous hour of math or 45 continuous minutes of grammar, the SAT might be easier for you.

Scoring – an SAT score is cumulative—the sum of your Critical Reading, Math, and Writing scores; an ACT score is composite—the average of your English, Math, Reading, and Science scores (note that your ACT essay score is not part of this average, though colleges will still receive it). If you want to improve an SAT score, you can often do so by focusing your preparation on one weaker area (e.g., Math). If you want to improve an ACT score, improving only a little bit in one area might not boost your average; you might need to improve in multiple sections.

So what should I do?

Most students score about the same on the SAT and the ACT, which means it likely doesn’t make sense to prepare for both. But a small percentage of students—perhaps 15%—will do significantly better on one test than the other. So the smart thing to do is to take a full-length practice test of each and then compare your scores (score conversion chart from If you perform noticeably better on one, that’s probably the one you should prepare for.  And if you don’t score markedly better on one than the other, trust your gut, and prepare for the test that felt better – or that was even (dare I say it) more fun.

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