College Admissions

ACT or SAT: Which Test Should You Take?


While the SAT and ACT are both used for college admission, they are very different tests. I advise students to try each test once, and then focus on the one that is a better fit.

The SAT is considered a reasoning based test, requiring critical thinking and problem-solving. Students who get top grades in school can be shocked when their SAT scores are lower than they expected. The ACT is a curriculum-based test. Strong students sometimes do better on the ACT, which is more closely aligned with what they have learned in school.

The ACT has fewer sections, but each one is longer. While the SAT total time is 20 minutes longer, students who like a faster pace may prefer its frequent section changes. Longer sections on the ACT do not mean you can take your time as the ACT actually allows less time per question.

On the multiple-choice writing section, the SAT requires more vocabulary. The ACT emphasizes punctuation. If your reading skills are stronger than your vocabulary, you may do better on the ACT. While the ACT has a science section, the questions ask you to read graphs and interpret data rather than apply science. The science section is a form of critical reading and the scores are often similar to those in critical reading.

The math section of the SAT is not difficult but it is tricky. Only a few SAT math questions require Algebra2. The ACT includes more advanced math, and a few questions require some trigonometry. If you do well in math classes, the more straightforward ACT could be a better fit. Students who are problem-solvers and who use short cuts often do well on the SAT. Unlike a math test you take in school, you don’t need to show your work, so the student who works backward, trying out each of the five answer choices rather than struggling to come up with an algebraic equation for a word problem may be less likely to make mistakes.

The SAT scoring system is designed to prevent students from increasing their scores by guessing. On multiple choice questions that have five possible answers, you lose a quarter point for a wrong answer. Since you should get one out of five guesses right, you would earn one point for the right answer and that would be cancelled out by the four quarter points you would lose for the wrong answers. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, so you should answer all questions on that test.

It is more difficult to improve ACT scores as there are fewer tricks and the exam rewards years of memorization. Students who have great study habits and do well on final exams are likely to do well on the ACT. Since the test is based on what you have learned in school, many students take it without much extra preparation, but completing at least one practice test can help you feel more confident going into the exam.

Because the SAT does not look like tests you take in school, students often panic when they first encounter the exam. But since the SAT is not dependent on years of accumulated knowledge, it is possible to raise your scores fairly quickly. After five or six practice tests, you will start to recognize types of questions, and once the test is more familiar, anxiety levels go down.