Should I take the ACT or SAT?

This is one of the most frequent questions that I get from students and parents who are starting down the road to test prep. Is the SAT easier than the ACT? Is the ACT better than the SAT? Do colleges prefer the ACT or SAT? What does writing optional mean?

Truth be told, for such a complicated question, there’s actually a very simple answer. Students should take whichever test that they feel most adequately allows them to demonstrate their academic strengths. In this article, I’ll review the basics of each exam along with suggestions on how to choose the test that best suits your student’s needs.

What is the purpose of entrance exams?

Although the process of studying for and taking entrance exams can be messy, these tests continue to exist because they do provide a moderately objective method for assessing students across various schools. It’s an unfortunate fact that some schools are more rigorous than others, and exams such as the ACT and the SAT allow colleges to gauge a student’s skills on a standardized level.

Are they a complete and accurate gauge of student intelligence? I don’t believe so. Stay tuned for an upcoming article that focuses more deeply on the subject.

What are the differences between the ACT and the SAT?

Buckle up. This is an in-depth discussion that requires a fair bit of history and test taking knowledge, but I’ll keep it simple, and I promise, you’ll be better for it at the end.

Test History

ACT stands for American College Test. Straightforward, I know. It was established in the late 1950’s and originally test English, Math, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences. Apart from occasional revisions in format and content, the test actually remains fairly close to its original iteration, with the four testing categories having been updated to: English, Math, Reading, Science and optional Writing.

SAT originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test but now stands for nothing. SAT has gone the way of CVS and KFC, relying on simple acronym recognition to maintain its brand. In contrast to the ACT, the SAT has changed frequently over it’s 90 year history, moving from a few sections to multiple sections back to a few sections. Scoring has swelled from 1600 to 2400 back to 1600. Writing tests have been graded on a roving series of 4 to 8 point scales. As it exists now, the sections for the SAT are: Reading, Math, Writing/Language, and an optional Essay.


ACT – 4 sections with optional writing. Composite (overall) score out of 36 points. Essay scored out of 12.

• English – 75 questions in 45 minutes
• Math – 60 questions in 60 minutes
• Reading – 40 questions in 35 minutes
• Science – 40 questions in 35 minutes
• Writing – 1 essay in 40 minutes

SAT – 4 sections with optional writing. Overall score out of 1600 points.

• Reading – 52 questions in 65 minutes
• Math (no calculator) – 20 questions in 25 minutes
• Math (with calculator) – 38 questions in 55 minutes
• Writing/Language – 44 questions in 35 minutes
• Essay – 1 essay in 50 minutes

Test Structure

ACT – ACT only contains an English section which assesses knowledge of English language and grammar.

SAT – Similar to the ACT’s mission above, the SAT Writing/Language section is likewise an assessment of grammar and editing skills.

ACT – Simple reading comprehension. Students will read passages and answer a series of questions on each.

SAT – Same as above

ACT – Students have 60 minutes to answer 60 math problems that increase in difficulty as the test progresses. Topics will cover Algebra, Geometry, some Trigonometry and very rare Calculus.

SAT – Math on the SAT breaks down into two sections, first without a calculator and then a second section with a calculator. Much like the ACT, math will cover basic Algebra and Geometry topics with occasional Trig.

ACT – The Science section is unique only to the ACT. It consists of 7 passages with a total of 40 questions to be answered in 35 minutes. Students will analyze data, examine mathematical relationships, and assess commentary on scientific topics.

ACT – Students are given a topic with three accompanying perspectives. They must then draft an essay that touches on each of the 3 perspectives while simultaneously asserting an argument. Essays are graded by two graders who use a 1-6 scale. Those scores are then added together for a combined total score out of 12 points.

SAT – The SAT essay more closely resembles the AP Language essay, where students read a crafted work, and then analyze how the author makes use of language and rhetoric. Essays are graded in subcategories that assess the student’s ability to comprehend the text, analyze the text, and write coherently on the topic.

So Which Test is Better?

Although time has eased the transition, up until recently the 2016 changes made to the SAT threw a curveball into the industry of test preparation. There are still only a handful of officially released SAT tests available for practice. Once students have exhausted those exams, they are then at the mercy of test writers employed by companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review to adequately “anticipate” test questions in review books.

In contrast, the consistency in testing administered by the ACT makes it a safer bet. Literally decades of ACT exams exist, with several of them easily available to students, tutors, and testing organizations. While I’m personally partial to the ACT, my recommendation would be for students to take both tests and compare baseline scores.

So if the tests are the same, why is there such a divide?

The divide might be a bit more perceived than actual. Many students actually do take both tests and then choose the stronger score to present to schools. Aside from superficial divides, test choice preferences can at times align along geographical lines, with students on the west coast and midwest preferring the ACT and students along the east coast and the south preferring the SAT. Colleges are used to both however, so once again, do not fear that choosing one test over another will put you at a disadvantage.

Still have questions? List them in the comments below or contact me for a free consultation to determine how you can approach the testing process.

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