ACT vs. SAT: Which Should You Take?

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ACT vs. SAT: Which Should You Take?

March 8, 2021

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"Should I take the SAT or ACT?" — it's a common question high school students ask themselves as they inch closer to college application season. Both the SAT and ACT are accepted by all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. They also test similar subjects, such as reading comprehension, math, and English grammar.

Unless you're applying only to test-optional colleges, you'll likely need to take the SAT or ACT as part of the college admissions process. But which exam should you choose?

To help you answer this question, we've provided an overview of the biggest differences between the ACT and SAT, along with advice on how to figure out which test may work better for you.

6 Major Differences Between the ACT and SAT

Timing

While the SAT and ACT both take around three hours to complete, each exam has different sections and time limits, with some sections offering more time per question than others. Here's an overview of the timing differences on the two tests:

Section SAT ACT
Reading 52 questions, 65 minutes
(75 seconds/question)
40 questions, 35 minutes
(53 seconds/question)
Writing and Language / English 44 questions, 35 minutes
(48 seconds/question)
75 questions, 45 minutes
(36 seconds/question)
Math (Calculator Permitted) 38 questions, 55 minutes
(87 seconds/question)
60 questions, 60 minutes
(60 seconds/question)
Math (No Calculator) 20 questions, 25 minutes
(75 seconds/question)
Science 40 questions, 35 minutes
(53 seconds/question)

Overall, the SAT gives an average of 70 seconds per question, compared to the ACT's 49 seconds. Think about whether you may need more time to complete one of the sections. For example, if you struggle with reading passages quickly, you might prefer the SAT since it gives nearly 20 seconds more per Reading question than the ACT (though it also contains 12 more questions in this section).

Scoring

The SAT and ACT each maintains its own scoring system, as shown below:

  • Total: 400-1600
  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 200-800
  • Math: 200-800
  • Composite: 1-36
  • English: 1-36
  • Math: 1-36
  • Reading: 1-36
  • Science: 1-36

On the SAT, your total score out of 1600 is simply the sum of your Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores (the latter of which is a combination of your scores on the Reading section and the Writing and Language section). By contrast, on the ACT, your composite score out of 36 is the average of your four section scores.

This means that your Math score counts for just one-fourth of your final ACT score but one half of your final SAT score. If you struggle with math, the ACT — which places less emphasis on math in its final score calculation — may be a better fit for you.

Cost

The SAT currently costs $52, while the ACT costs slightly more at $55 (without the optional essay). Both exams offer fee waivers for eligible students, but in general the SAT can save you more money. SAT fee waivers cover late fees, waive application fees at participating colleges, and provide unlimited score reports — none of which ACT fee waivers do.

Math Section

Although both the SAT and ACT include Math sections, these sections couldn't be more different.

The SAT splits its Math section into two subsections: one on which you may use a calculator, and one on which you may not use a calculator. Meanwhile, the entire ACT Math section allows you to use a calculator. If you're not sure about your ability to solve math problems by hand, the ACT may work better for you.

That said, the SAT — unlike the ACT — includes a reference guide you can use during the exam that contains a variety of everyday math formulas. In other words, there's less pressure to memorize common formulas for the SAT than there is for the ACT.

Unlike the SAT Math section, which bans the use of a calculator on one part, the ACT Math section permits you to use a calculator for every question.

Another difference is that math questions on the ACT are all multiple choice, whereas the SAT includes about 13 student-produced response questions, or grid-ins. For these, you must come up with the answers yourself and write them in.

Finally, while the ACT has five answer choices per math question, the SAT has just four. This means you will have a slightly higher chance of choosing the correct answer with SAT math questions than you will with ACT math questions (a 25% chance of guessing correctly versus a 20% chance).

Science Section

Unlike the SAT, the ACT includes a dedicated Science section, which counts for one-fourth of your final ACT score. According to ACT Inc., this section "measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences." To do well on the Science section, you must know how to interpret experimental data and hypotheses and evaluate scientific models.

Note that while the SAT does not include a separate Science section, many of its questions reference scientific experiments and hypotheses and therefore also require a deep understanding of how to interpret scientific data. These questions, which may be found on all SAT sections, make up your Analysis in Science cross-test score.

Optional Essay

Originally, both the SAT and ACT included an optional essay component, which required you to compose an original essay based on a given passage. Starting this summer, however, the SAT will no longer offer an optional essay. If you want to write an essay, your only option going forward will be to take the ACT.

Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

4 Reasons to Take the SAT

If you're feeling good about solving math problems without a calculator and having to write in your answers, the SAT would likely work better for you. Remember that the Math section counts for half your SAT score, so if you do well on this component you could see a huge boost to your total score.

Every SAT section offers more time per question than the ACT. If you tend to think things through more slowly and want more time to fall back on in case you get stuck, the SAT may be the better option for you.

No Science section on the SAT means not having to worry about a separate Science score potentially dragging down your exam performance.

Certain states and school districts may require all juniors or seniors to take the SAT, usually for free. In this case, you don't have much of a choice and should simply stick with the SAT.

4 Reasons to Take the ACT

ACT Math counts for just one quarter of your final score and allows you to use a calculator for every question. If you don't perform particularly well on the Math section, your Math score shouldn't impact your final ACT score as much as it would on the SAT (assuming you do better on the other three sections).

The ACT gives science whizzes more room to flex their analytical muscles. Earning a high score on the Science section will likely add a noticeable boost to your composite ACT score.

If you're a strong writer and believe an essay could strengthen your college application, take the ACT with Writing. Because the SAT is phasing out its optional essay component, your only option for submitting an essay is the ACT.

As with the SAT, some states or school districts may require all students to take the ACT in order to graduate. If the ACT is mandatory, there's really no point in bothering with the SAT.

Can You Take Both the SAT and ACT?

Some students may be interested in taking both the SAT and ACT — and you certainly can, if you wish to do so — but it's generally best to avoid doing this.

For one, you'll have to study for two separate exams, each of which maintains its own structure, content, and questions. This could make your prep unnecessarily confusing, causing you to study the wrong topics or practice with the wrong time limits.

You'll also have to dedicate more time to studying, take more practice tests, and practice with more sample questions than you would if you were only preparing for the SAT or ACT.

Your best option is to stick with either the SAT or ACT. If you don’t do well on your first attempt, you can always take the test a second or even third time.

In the end, your best option is to stick with one exam. If you don't do well on your first attempt, you can always take the test a second or even third time. In fact, you're more likely to score higher when you retake the test because you have studied more and are more familiar with your chosen exam.

If you're truly struggling to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT, consider taking a full-length SAT practice test and ACT practice test to see which you score better on and feel more confident taking.

Additional SAT and ACT Resources


Feature Image: JC559 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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