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

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: May 16th, 2024
    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. 

    The digital ACT, SAT, and PSAT are now available! 

    First, whatever test you choose to take, there is good news! Students now have the option to take the digital SAT or digital ACT! For those students taking the PSAT, you are in luck too, as the digital PSAT was just launched as well! Read about the digital versions of each test so you can further educate yourself on which might be more appealing. For example, the new digital SAT is an “adaptive test,” meaning the difficulty level of the content changes based on test taker performance. For some students, that is appealing, and for others, it might be challenging. 

    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 is offered only in a digital format, while the ACT offers a digital or paper format
    • The ACT is roughly an hour to an hour and a half longer than the SAT
    • 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:

      SAT ACT
    Test Sections Reading & Writing, Math English, Math, Reading, Science, & Reasoning Essay (Optional)
    Length 2 hours, 14 minutes 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 Several 25-150 word 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: 

    Arithmetic

    Algebra I & II

    Geometry, Trigonometry and Data Analysis

    Covers:

    Arithmetic

    Algebra I & II

    Geometry, Trigonometry, and Probability & Statistics

    Number of total questions  98 (54 reading & writing questions, 44 math questions) 215 questions (75 English questions, 60 math questions, 40 reading questions, 40 science questions)
    Calculator Policy Calculator is allowed on both math sections 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 $68 without essay

    $93 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.

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    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Each exam has slight differences, but for the most part they serve the same purpose of helping you understand how prepared you are for college
    • Colleges do not have a preference for one exam over the other and will typically accept either
    • If possible, you can try taking practice exams for both test to figure out which one you feel better about, as well as you can take both tests to see which you score better on
    • At the end of the day, there is no one answer about which test is better, there is just the test that is better suited to you 

    Frequently asked questions about the ACT vs. SAT

    Is the ACT harder than the SAT?

    Neither standardized test is necessarily designed to be harder than the other. However, some students may find that one test does feel easier than the other simply based on your personal strengths. This is why we recommend taking both tests if it is an option, or at least completing some free practice tests of each to see how they feel.

    What is the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

    The SAT and ACT vary in structure and length, but they largely serve the same purpose, which is to help assess your level of college readiness.

    Is it easier to score higher on the SAT or ACT?

    Which test is easier to score higher on is dependent on a lot of factors. Every student has different strengths, will spend a different amount of time studying and preparing, and will receive a slightly different version of the test. Take practice tests from both exams to assess which one you may score consistently higher on.

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