Which Test Is Best For You? ACT or SAT?

More students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time in 2012, ending the SAT’s reign as America’s most popular university-entrance standardized test. Since then, the ACT’s popularity has only continued to grow. This shift toward the ACT was at least partially the result of students often preferring the ACT’s more content-based style of questioning. Many students wanted to avoid the SAT’s more reasoning-based style of questioning that felt quite different from what they typically encountered in the classroom. However, in March 2016, The College Board released a completely revamped SAT, designed to be more similar to the ACT, and further complicating decision-making for college admissions test preparation.

As you consider taking the ACT versus the SAT, think about the following:

Timing. Does it work for you or against you?

The most significant difference between the tests is that the ACT is faster-paced and benefits students who push through questions quickly. The new SAT provides a less intense pacing experience.

  • The ACT Math section consists of 60 questions in 60 minutes (60 seconds per question) whereas the SAT Math sections spread 58 questions over 2 sections for a total of 80 minutes (83 seconds per question).
  • The ACT English and Reading sections pose 115 questions over 80 minutes (42 seconds per question) while the SAT Language and Reading sections contain 96 questions in 100 minutes (63 seconds per question).
  • If you have extended time accommodations due to a learning difference, the pacing issue is largely mitigated. In other words, the timing difference will not matter.

How do you feel about Science?

The ACT has a Science section while the new SAT intersperses such questions throughout the test. In both cases, students are often surprised to learn that these question types are more skill-based than fact-based (e.g. interpreting graphs and charts) and don’t require outside scientific knowledge. With structured practice, students can greatly improve from their initial ACT Science section score. However, for students who really do not like the ACT’s Science section, the new SAT may be a more appealing choice.

Are you confident without your calculator?

While the ACT allows a calculator on all math questions, the new SAT contains twenty “no calculator” math problems. While putting your calculator aside for about a third of the SAT’s math questions may initially sound intimidating, these questions do not require complicated arithmetic. Most students do not find the lack of a calculator to be an issue. If anything, a calculator would probably slow students down on the “no calculator” question type.

The SAT Essay was discontinued in June 2021.

The ACT Essay, also known as the Writing section, remains an optional part of the ACT. The essay prompt presents a complex issue and three different perspectives on that issue. Test takers are asked to develop their own perspective on the issue, analyze the relationship between their perspective and at least one other, and support their viewpoint with reasoning and examples. This essay is scored on a scale of 1 to 6 by two different graders (for a total score ranging from 2 to 12), and these scores are then averaged. The Writing score is reported separately from the composite score, which is the average of the four main sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science.

Additionally, because the latest iteration of the digital computer-adaptive SAT is still so new, far fewer practice tests and other preparation materials exist for it. This alone is often a disadvantage and causes students to choose the ACT until more SAT data and materials exist. For now, there is still limited data in terms of concordance charts and interpreting SAT results.

So, which test is the better choice?

It is a myth that one test is markedly easier than the other. Most students perform similarly on both tests. Making a decision between ACT or SAT for university admissions test preparation depends mostly on your personal preferences as a test taker. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to find out early if you have a clear preference for either test. Switching back and forth between tests or trying to prepare for both simultaneously is not an efficient use of precious test preparation time.

In addition, colleges and universities do not prefer one test over the other. Preparing for the ACT or SAT both require hours of dedicated practice and sustained hard work to master the relevant content and internalize the necessary test-taking strategies. A strong score on either test provides admission officers with the same information since the content and format of the tests are similar. And don’t forget, your standardized test scores are just one part of your university application!

Should you write the ESSAY portion of the ACT or not?

More and more universities are dropping their requirement for the essay. A few (including the University of California system) still require it. A few recommend it. Given that the essay appears to be on its way out, we are no longer including the essay in our test prep classes. For students wishing to prepare for the Essay portion, Frazer Roland of Can-Am Test Prep will be offering a 2-day workshop focused on the essay. He will provide information and details during his tutorial with you.

Arguments for ACT:

  • If you are an overall strong student in a rigorous academic program, then you will do well in the ACT because it is a more straightforward test.
  • If you are able to work fast.
  • There are 215 MC (multiple choice) questions on the ACT compared to 152 MC questions on the SAT. You are given 40 minutes for the essay on the ACT compared to 50 minutes on the SAT.
  • If you are applying to STEM programs or the sciences, the fact that the ACT has a science section that allows you to do well, showcasing your science chops, can be a plus for you.
  • Does NOT provide the formulas for math.
  • Calculators are permitted on all math sections.
  • There is equal emphasis on geometry and algebra.
  • You can request to have any test results erased from their records.

Arguments for SAT:

  • If English is a second language for you, in which case you might be a little slower in processing, the SAT might be best because it gives you more time per question. However, given the fact that some questions might be somewhat tricky (less straightforward), you might need more time in solving these questions. Therefore, timing your responses in a mock test will enable you to gauge if the timing works for you.
  • Provides some geometry formulas for the math section.
  • It has less geometry but more algebra-related questions.
  • There are some questions in both math sections where you have to generate and enter the response (not multiple choice).
  • There are more word problem-solving questions in math.

Test Information Release (TIR):  Students can order the TIR during registration or any time up to five days after the test administration, after which they will receive a copy of the test answers for review after they receive their scores. The TIR costs $20, and there are additional charges to receive a photocopy of the answer sheet or essay, if applicable. The ACT only offers the TIR service in December, April, and June, so students should take advantage of it when can, as it can be a very helpful resource for understanding their scores. For more information, visit the ACT’s TIR page here.

For further information and sample questions for the SAT and ACT, please refer to their websites:

  1. ACT:  https://www.act.org/
  2. SAT:  https://www.collegeboard.org/