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ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take

When it comes to the ACT vs. the SAT, both exams are widely used by U.S. colleges to make admissions decisions and award scholarships. Additionally, the ACT and the SAT generally cover the same topics. This leads many students to ask themselves “which exam should I take?” When trying to figure out which exam is best for you, it’s important to understand the differences between the two tests. 

Also read: How to pick the best test prep tutor

Which exam should I take?

If you’re hoping to find out which exam is the easier option, unfortunately it’s not that straightforward. Neither exam is technically harder than the other, but some students perform better on the ACT while others prefer the SAT. It all depends on your individual strengths. Consider the following points if you’re trying to decide which test to take. 

  • The ACT contains a section entirely devoted to Science, while the SAT has occasional science questions throughout the exam. 
  • The SAT has a No-Calculator Math section, while the ACT does not. 
  • The SAT provides slightly more time per question, but the questions also require more logical thinking.
  • The ACT tests more math topics than the SAT (such as matrices, logarithms, and geometry), but the questions are typically more straightforward. 
  • The ACT offers an optional essay section, whereas the SAT does not.

As you can see, the exams are fairly balanced. Some say the ACT is better suited for students who have strong science skills and enjoy direct problems. Meanwhile, the SAT may be a better option for students who excel at reading and critical thinking. Ultimately, though, the best way to decide between the ACT and SAT is to take a practice test like the PSAT. This will allow you to see which exam you prefer, while also preparing for the real test. 

Related: How to improve your SAT score

ACT vs. SAT: What’s the difference?

Now that we’ve outlined the key differences between the exams, let’s get into a rundown of the particulars of each test:

Test Sections Reading, Writing, Language, & Math English, Math, Reading, Science, & Reasoning Essay (Optional)
Length 3 hours 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)
3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)
How It’s Scored Scored on a scale of 400–1600 Scored on a scale of 1–36
Reading 5 reading passages 4 reading passages
Science No independent section, but incorporates science questions throughout 1 science section testing your critical thinking skills (not your specific science knowledge)
Math Covers: 
Algebra I & II
Geometry, Trigonometry and Data Analysis
Algebra I & II
Geometry, Trigonometry, and Probability & Statistics
Calculator Policy Some math questions don’t allow you to use a calculator. You can use a calculator on all math questions.
Essays None Optional:
The essay will test how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues.
Cost $60 $63 without essay
$88 with essay

Do colleges prefer the ACT or SAT?

Colleges have no preference when it comes to which exam you take. All colleges and universities in the United States accept scores from both the ACT and SAT. This means you’re free to take the exam that best suits your skillset. 

Read more: What is a high SAT score?

Is it worth taking both tests?

If you have the time and resources, it doesn’t hurt to take both the SAT and the ACT. You may score higher on one exam or the other, which gives you some flexibility when submitting test scores to colleges. If you go this route, consider taking both exams by the fall of your junior year. This will give you plenty of time to retake your preferred exam if you choose to do so. 

Don’t miss: Top SAT math tips

How to be successful on the ACT or SAT

Regardless of which exam you take (or both), you’ll want to set yourself up for success by properly preparing. If you can afford it, a test prep tutor can be extremely helpful in this process. As we’ve mentioned, taking a practice test is a great way to get a feel for the real exam. From there, you can determine the areas that you need to focus on when studying. If you’d rather not take an official practice test, there are free test prep options for both the SAT and ACT.

See also: When should you take the SAT or ACT?

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