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SAT vs. ACT: How to Know Which Test Is Right For You

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pencils and answer sheets for college admissions tests like the ACT and SAT

It’s time to start thinking about the big college admissions test. So which one will it be: the SAT or the ACT? Let us help you figure it out.

What are the differences in the format?

Both the ACT and SAT include four multiple-choice sections presented in the same order every time. The SAT includes reading, writing and language, math with a calculator, and math without a calculator. The ACT includes English, math, reading, and science. Both include an optional essay.

With essay, the SAT lasts 3 hours and 50 minutes, and the ACT takes 3 hours and 35 minutes.

So the timing is about the same?

Kind of. The time you will spend in the room is very similar between the two tests. But the SAT contains a total of 154 questions, giving you about 1 minute 10 seconds per question, while the ACT has 215 questions, for a rate of about 49 seconds per question – and that 20 second gap can make a significant difference in the time stress you feel, especially if you are prone to test anxiety.

How do the scores work?

The SAT combines the reading section with the writing and language section to create one verbal score (technically called the “evidence-based reading and writing” score) and adds up the math sections to get an overall math score. Each score runs from 200 to 800, for a total between 400 and 1600.

Then median score among SAT test-takers in 2017 was 1055; to score better than 80 percent of your peers, you’d have needed a 1230. (Way more details available from the College Board.)

The ACT gives you a score between 1 and 36 on each section, then averages the four numbers to get your composite score. From 2015 to 2107, the median ACT score was roughly 20; a 26 would outscore 82 percent of test-takers. (Check out the ACT numbers.)

Wait a minute … the ACT includes science? How much science do I need to know?

The short answer is: not much. The science section is less about knowing the parts of a cell or the rules of thermodynamics, and more about how well you know the overarching principles and skills needed to understand science. The test asks you to read charts and graphs, draw conclusions from data, identify experimental variables and controls, and occasionally apply given formulas to new information.

It can absolutely look a bit overwhelming the first time you tackle it, but, with practice and familiarity, the science section is no more complex or challenging that any other parts of the test.

What’s the deal with the math? Which one is easier?

It depends on your particular math strengths and weaknesses.

Compared to the SAT, the ACT definitely includes some more advanced math concepts, such as basic trigonometry and more challenging geometry. ACT problems are presented in a very straightforward, almost textbooky way.

The SAT, on the other hand, focuses more on mastering and applying linear algebra and understanding data. The problems often describe real-world situations and ask students to use their math knowledge to draw conclusions.

The SAT has a section that does not allow a calculator; calculators are welcome for the entirety of the ACT math test.

What about reading and writing?

The English section of the ACT and the writing and language section of the SAT are nearly identical. You read a passage and, as you go, answer questions about grammar, word choice, style and punctuation. The major difference: The SAT includes occasional graphs to read and interpret in the the writing section. I know, it’s weird.

The reading is a bit more variable. The ACT always presents four passages with 10 questions each. The questions don’t generally come in the same order the answers appear in the reading – the final question could be about the first paragraph. In the SAT, the questions are ordered to follow the passage. The SAT also includes some questions in a unique format: Paired problems first ask you a question about content, then ask you to choose the line that best supports your previous answer.

Are the essay sections the same?

Not at all. The SAT asks you to read a passage and write an essay analyzing the persuasive techniques – word choice, tone, literary devices – the author uses to create a compelling argument. The ACT describes an issue – artificial intelligence or funding for the arts, for example – then provides three possible perspectives on the matter. You are asked to evaluate the three points of view and come to your own conclusion about the question.

Most test-takers find they have a decided preference for one essay format over the other. Remember, however, the essay score is not wrapped into your overall score, and many schools don’t even require an essay score.

Do colleges prefer one test to the other?

Nope.

OK, but how do I decide which one to take?

Generally speaking, the SAT may be right for you if you have concerns about timing, prefer math problems that apply concepts to real situations, or feel you need a little more guidance in reading comprehension. The ACT might be a better choice if you are comfortable with scientific principles and advanced math, not totally comfortable with vocabulary questions, or really want to have your calculator by your side.


In reality, though, the best way to pick the right test is to take a practice test (here’s the SAT and here’s the ACT), determine your initial scores, and decided which one feels better to you. It is hard to overstate the value of going into the test a little more relaxed and confident. So try them both out, then go with your instincts.

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