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Should I take the SAT or ACT?

When you begin thinking about applying to college, you quickly learn that you’ll need to take the SAT or the ACT. Which should you take?

Since the 2016 redesign of the SAT, the tests are more similar than they have ever been. The following are true for both:

  • There is no penalty for wrong answers.
  • They offer an optional essay section (which does not count toward your total score).
  • They contain similar sections like Math and Reading.
  • They have passage-based Reading and English/Writing questions.

Every four-year college in the U.S. accepts scores from both tests. Certain states do require one or the other, and if this is true for your state, consider simply focusing your study on the required test. Otherwise, there are several key differences between the SAT and ACT, and while neither is “easier,” many students find certain aspects better suited to their strengths.

You can evaluate which test is better for you by taking a full-length practice test of each. Before committing eight hours, however, consider the differences below:

Science Reasoning

The SAT has four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and an optional Essay. The ACT has comparable Reading, English, Math, and optional essay sections, but it also has a fifth section: Science Reasoning.

Since most of the info you need appears in the passages, the Science Reasoning section doesn’t test extensive science content knowledge. Along with critical thinking, this section actually measures reading comprehension--so consider the ACT if reading comprehension is one of your strengths, even if “science” is not. You will have to analyze charts and graphs, though, and this section does contain scientific vocabulary. If words like “ribosome” or “insoluble” stop you in your tracks, make sure to familiarize yourself with scientific vocab.

Don’t think that avoiding the ACT means avoiding science altogether, however. While the SAT doesn’t have a science section, scientific passages often appear in other sections, and you will still have to evaluate charts and data.


Both the SAT and ACT have Math sections, but the SAT contains a math section during which you cannot use your calculator. At 25 minutes long, this is the shortest SAT section, but it still counts for one-third of your total math score. You can technically answer all questions on both tests without the use of a calculator, but the no-calculator questions are designed to be easier to solve without one, which means they’re based more on reasoning than arithmetic. The SAT also contains a “grid-in” section, which doesn’t offer multiple choice--you have to fill in your answers.

For both tests, you must have a solid understanding of algebra and geometry. The SAT provides a diagram of geometry formulas, while the ACT does not. You’ll also need to know certain advanced math concepts for the ACT, which emphasizes trigonometry more heavily and covers concepts the SAT doesn’t, like logarithms and matrices.

Four answer choices on SAT questions mean you’ll have a 25 percent chance of getting the correct answer if you guess. In comparison, ACT math questions offer five choices, which equals a 20 percent chance of guessing the right solution.

You should also think about how the Math section factors into your total score. On the ACT, there are four sections that contribute to your composite score, of which Math accounts for only twenty five percent. Your score on the Math section of the SAT, however, accounts for half of your total score.


Both tests include Reading sections, but there are different types of questions. The SAT includes evidence-support questions, which reference previous questions and require you to give line or paragraph evidence for previous answers. On the ACT, every question stands alone.

The questions on the SAT Reading section also appear in chronological order: they follow the order of the content in the passage they’re about. By comparison, the order of ACT Reading questions is often random, which can make the questions harder to follow.


The total hours you’ll need to sit for the two tests are ultimately quite close. The SAT is three hours long without the essay, and three hours, 50 minutes long with the essay. The ACT is two hours, 55 minutes without the essay, and three hours, 40 minutes with the essay.

However, the pacing of the two tests differs. The ACT has a lot more questions and includes the additional Science section within the three-hour block, and you will have fewer seconds per question on the ACT than on the SAT. Although the SAT questions require more reading, the ACT is ultimately a faster-paced exam. If you work well under pressure, the ACT might suit you. If you know you’ll do better having more time for each question, you might choose the SAT.


Prompts include passages that you’ll be asked to write about, but how you must write about the passages differs. On the SAT, you will not be sharing your own opinion. Rather, you must analyze the author’s argument based on evidence and reasoning--students who find their strengths in reading comprehension often find this section suits them. On the ACT, you’ll analyze three perspectives on a particular issue, and you must also share (and support) your own opinion on the given issue. If your strengths lie in critical thinking and analysis, this option may be a better fit for you.

Note that many schools do not require you submit a writing score, but several selective institutions do, and many selective institutions recommend you submit one.

Key Takeaways

While the SAT and ACT are very similar, there are a few key differences to evaluate when considering which to take:

  • The ACT includes a Science Reasoning section. Students with strong reading comprehension and critical thinking skills may benefit from this section.
  • The SAT contains a no-calculator math section and grid-ins, which can play to the strengths of students who excel at mental math and reasoning, while the ACT covers more advanced math concepts. The Math section accounts for half of your SAT score but only a quarter of your ACT score.
  • SAT Reading includes evidence-support questions; ACT Reading questions are not necessarily chronological.
  • The tests are of similar length, but the ACT is faster-paced, while the SAT offers more time for each question.
  • The SAT essay focuses on reading comprehension and analysis, while the ACT essay focuses on critical thinking.



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