ACT vs SAT: Which test should you take?

ACT vs SAT: Which test should you take?

High school heralds the advent of anxiety-inducing decisions for students and parents alike. Everything from social events to service projects and academic choices to extracurricular involvement carries weight, not just in the present moment, but on that ever-looming college application. In my experience over the past 30 years in secondary education, one question that surfaces with regularity is whether a student should take the ACT or the SAT. Parents who think back to their own experiences with these tests in high school may have outdated perspectives, thinking that the SAT still deducts ¼ of a point for a wrong answer (it doesn’t) or that certain colleges only accept a certain test (they don’t). Let’s break down the differences and see how a student can decide which test is right for them.



Which test do colleges prefer?

There is no preference. It’s true. All colleges in the US will accept either the SAT or the ACT, with no bias towards those who choose one test or the other. Choose the test that’s better for you/your student.



What are the structural differences between the SAT and ACT?

Multiple differences make the two tests quite different. For many students, one test is a better match for their skill sets than the other test. Let’s look at the basic structure of each test.



ACT Sections

SAT Sections


English (called Writing & Language)




Math – no calculator


Math – with calculator



Immediately, one difference is evident: the SAT has more math. For students who are math-averse, the SAT already may not be the better choice. A closer look at the math sections will give us even better insights.



ACT Math

SAT Math

60 problems

58 problems

Calculator allowed for all problems.

No calculator: 20 questions

Calculator: 38 questions

All multiple choice

45 multiple choice problems

13 open-ended problems



This chart alone is enough to make many math-averse students choose the ACT. Students preparing for the SAT need to be ready to attack an entire math section without a calculator, and additionally, they need to be ready to produce answers without the benefit of multiple choices offering them the opportunity to guess. Structure alone, though, should not be the sole factor in considering which test to take.


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What are the timing differences between the SAT and ACT?

The ACT is a much faster-paced test, and many students struggle with the time crunch.



ACT Timing

SAT Sections


75 questions/45 minutes = 36 seconds each


44 questions/35 minutes =

48 seconds each


40 questions/35 minutes =

52 seconds each


52 questions/65 minutes =

75 seconds each


60 questions/60 minutes =

60 seconds each

Math – no calc

20 questions/25 minutes =

75 seconds each


40 questions/35 minutes =

52 seconds each

Math – with calc

38 questions/55 minutes =

86 seconds each



Consider the pace of that ACT Reading section. 52 seconds for each question…and that doesn’t even include reading any of the four reading passages.


So, while students preparing for the SAT have specific challenges in preparing for all the math involved, students preparing for the ACT have to make plans – and practice – for the time crunch that the ACT involves. Reading, in particular, is difficult to manage in the time assigned.



What are the content differences between the SAT and ACT?

On the English/Writing & Language sections, the content is overwhelmingly the same. Conventions of Standard English (as the ACT calls them) are tested: comma rules, semicolons, subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers, dependent and independent clauses. Other questions in this section involve “Production of Writing” and “Knowledge of Language” on the ACT and “Command of Evidence” on the SAT. Preparation for both tests is largely the same. The rules that apply to success on one test will also translate to success on the other test.  The ACT has 75 questions, though, so if this isn’t a strength for you, the ACT may feel overwhelming.


On the Reading sections, the content is, again, much the same. The SAT gives students more time, but the passages are on a higher (and more difficult) reading level. ACT Reading passages might be easier to read, but with less time to process them, they still offer a substantial challenge. The questions are mostly similar: big-picture questions (main idea, theme, point of view) and detail-oriented questions (evidence, vocabulary in context).


What about Science? The ACT has a Science section, but the SAT does not. It’s important to note that ACT Science isn’t really a “science test.”  Because school curricula vary so widely, ACT does not attempt to assess any student’s science knowledge; therefore, it’s not helpful to “study” science in preparation for this test.  The ACT Science section really tests a student’s ability to reason through a scientific reading passage that is accompanied by charts, graphs, tables, and figures to help illustrate that scientific blurb.  It’s more like another Reading section than anything. All answers can be found in the passage. A student does not need to come to the Science section with anything more than very basic science knowledge. On the SAT, a few passages in the Reading section will be like this: scientific topics with accompanying visual graphics.


In the Math sections, each of the two tests has a slightly different focus.

  • The top five topics of mathematics on the ACT are (1) pre-algebra/number theory, (2) area/volume, (3) proportions, (4) angles/trig, and (5) quadratic equations.
  • The top five topics of mathematics on the SAT are (1) slope, (2) quadratic equations, (3) algebra, (4) proportions, and (5) systems of equations.


A student should assess their own math strengths and weaknesses to determine which test would better suit their natural skills.



So… which test should you take?

You should take the test that is the better fit for your skill set, your ability to self-manage your time within the parameters of the test, and your calendar (since the tests are often given in offsetting months).  Colleges will take your scores from either test!


Remember, though, that no matter which test you choose, it’s only one measure that colleges consider. They will also look at all the work you’ve done in arts, athletics, leadership, extra-curricular activities, community service, and more. Choose the test that is most likely to reflect your abilities, prepare for it, and do your best!


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Author Bio

Kristie Beck has 30 years of experience in teaching and leading high school students. With an M.Ed. since 1999 and an EdD nearly complete, she loves using her experience and education to help her savvy students reach their goals. She has six children of her own, she knows first-hand how difficult and stressful the college admissions process can be. Over the years, she has developed unique and effective test preparation strategies, so that each and every student can make improvements to their score, no matter where they’re starting or what their learning style. She started Savvy Strategies in 2017 and has helped hundreds of students earn higher scores on the ACT and SAT.