Which test is right for you?

Most Frequently Asked Question: 

Should I take the SAT or the ACT?

The best short answer is... "It depends".  

All colleges and universities in the US accept both tests.  So ultimately, you can take either one.

Conventional wisdom says that you should take each test (or at least a full length practice test) and see which one suits you better. That's a fine, logical strategy. However, you're looking at investing about eight hours of your life sitting for standardized tests (or a practice ones) - just to see how they feel. That's a heck-of-a-lotta time! If you can spare the Saturday mornings and don't mind sitting for practice runs, go for it! It's a solid approach.

But one important distinction may help you right off the bat: MATH.


How much math is enough?

You decide.

How do you feel about math?

The SAT is 1/2 math. The ACT is 1/4 math. (If that doesn't make sense to you, then probably the ACT is your better bet!) The SAT has four sections - and two of them are math: one math section where you DO use a calculator, one math section where you do NOT use a calculator. Also, the SAT has some math problems that do not have multiple answer choices: test-takers must solve the math problem, and then submit the answer on a grid. So, if math is your thing, the SAT gives you all sorts of math fun to have. If you are not so thrilled about so much math and you want those multiple choice answers, the ACT may be for you. It also has four sections - and only one of them is math.

If you wanted a quick answer, that was it. But there are other things to think about as well.

Top Ten Things to Consider


Sometimes it's jarring to hear SAT and ACT scores thrown around in the same conversation. A 36 is a perfect ACT score, while 1000 is an average SAT score. Weird. Only in this universe can 36 be far "higher" than 1000.

  • There are four sections on the ACT (English, Math, Reading, Science) and each gets its own score, from 1 to 36. (21 is the average.) Those four subtest scores are averaged together to give you a composite score, which also (logically) falls between 1 and 36. 
  • There are four sections on the SAT, but they are not averaged together. The formula is complicated, but just know that you'll end up with two scores between 200 and 800. Those two scores are put together for a total score of between 400 and 1600. (1000 is the average.) 

What does this mean for you? Well, from one perspective, having a shorter scale means that moving just one point makes a big difference. Many colleges use cut scores for scholarships, so moving your ACT score from a 27 to a 28 may mean thousands of additional dollars of scholarships. On the SAT, moving from a 1250 to a 1260 doesn't make much difference. Use a concordance chart to figure out how your ACT score compares to an SAT score or vice versa.

If you're wondering how to determine if a score is "good enough" for the schools where you want to apply, we've talked about that! Check it out. 


The ACT is much more of a time-crunch than the SAT.  If you want to score well on the ACT, you need to learn pacing strategies that will help you beat the clock. For instance, the English section has 75 questions that you need to complete in 45 minutes. That's just over 30 seconds per question. The SAT's Writing and Language test (basically like ACT English), on the other hand, has 44 questions that you need to answer in 35 minutes, roughly 48 seconds per question. That may not seem like a big difference, but on test day, it makes a huge difference. The SAT gives test-takers more time per question in every section. What's the trade-off? The SAT asks slightly more complex questions in some sections. Choose your poison.

8. English (ACT) or Writing and Language (SAT) 

These are basically the same. They're called different things, but they test both your knowledge of Standard Written English (it's a thing) and your ability to assess rhetorical devices and usage. They both have about 55% grammar/punctuation/mechanics questions and 45% rhetoric questions. The ACT usually uses the "No change" option more often (roughly 20% of questions) than the SAT does (roughly 15% of questions). Other than that, learn all those punctuation rules you never quite figured out and strengthen your knowledge of grammar and mechanics!

You need that knowledge on both the SAT and ACT.

7. Reading

The ACT has four reading passages. They are always in the same order: Literary Narrative/Prose Fiction, Humanities, Social Science, Natural Science. There will be three regular passages and one paired passage. You have 40 questions and 35 minutes. (In our experience, many students struggle to finish on time.)

The SAT has five reading passages. Their subject matter varies, but one or two of them will have charts or diagrams with them. Four will be regular passages, and one will be a paired passage. You have 52 questions and 65 minutes. (In our experience, most students finish with time to check their answers.) 

For the most part, they are similar tests, although the SAT does ask more evidence-based questions than the ACT. ("Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?")

6. Science

The ACT has an entire section for Science; the SAT does not. The Science subtest is 1/4 of your total ACT! 

The SAT does test your scientific reasoning, but they mix it into the Reading and Math sections. Expect to find a passage in the Reading portion of the test that deals with scientific reasoning.

Neither test is actually testing your knowledge of science itself. Don't re-read your Chem or Physics notes before either the SAT or ACT!  Both tests are assessing your ability to think logically and critically, using evidence and making inferences based on data.

Some schools (Brown is one notable example) will require or recommend that students take "the SAT and an SAT subject test in science ....or (just) the ACT." In that case, it might be easier and less stressful to take just the ACT - and not have to take an SAT subject test in Science in addition to taking the regular SAT. As always, it depends on you, your strengths, and what your schools require.

5. Math sections

This is a big difference between the two tests. The ACT has one math section. You can use a calculator, and all the questions have multiple choice answers. The SAT has two math sections. You can use a calculator on one, but not on the other. Some problems have multiple-choice answers, and some do not. For the ones that are NOT multiple choice, you must solve the problem and then fill in your answer on a grid.

Think about your math ability and your math anxiety. Is this a solid subject area for you? Or is this a subject that causes you great frustration and angst? Whatever your answers are, use them to help you determine which test is better suited to your strengths.

4. Math concepts

Yes. We just talked about math. But this is where we'll find the most differences between the two tests. Both tests focus a great deal on algebra. That's quite similar.

However, the ACT has more geometry questions (35-45% of the test!) and more trig questions (5-7% of the test) than the SAT (which has less than 10% of its questions on geometry and 3-5% on trig).  The ACT also includes coordinate geometry and graphs of trig functions, which the SAT does not include at all.

Think about your math knowledge, your strengths and weaknesses, your anxiety levels - and then choose the test that is best suited to your strengths.

3. Math formulas

Math! Again! So much Math!! (Yes. Because this is important stuff!)

The SAT provides you with 12 formulas and 3 laws. The ACT gives you none.

Now, to be honest, the formulas are mostly geometry ones....and there is not much geometry on the SAT. But, at least they are there if you need them. You'll need more than those, though, to score well. Preparation for both tests should involve a review of commonly used math formulas.

2. Geography

What?? No - there is no SAT or ACT Geography test. Fear not!

By geography, we mean "where do you live?" On the coasts, the SAT tends to be the more popular test. In the Midwest, the ACT is more popular. Neither is "better" despite anyone's claims to the contrary.

Some states require all high school students to take the SAT. Some states require all high school students to take the ACT. Find out what your state requires, if anything, and prepare for that.

1. Importance

This is absolutely, positively the most important thing to keep in mind when you think about these tests.

First of all: yes. They are important. They are the easiest tool a college has to screen its applicants. If your score is lower than the middle 50% of the students at a school you'd like to apply to, the best thing you can do to improve your chances of admission and/or scholarships is to improve your test score. 

Think about it this way. What game do you play on your phone? All. The. Time. Is it Ballz? 2048? Flappy Bird? What game have you played over and over and over again, trying to get a new high score? Whatever it is, I promise you it is not as important as your SAT or ACT score. Why not pour some of that energy into THIS game and get your new high score here? This matters, it really does.

That being said, I want to end by reminding you that your score is not your worth. A high score, a perfect score, a lower-than-expected score....? It's just a number. Nothing more, nothing less. It does NOT define you. It does not describe your worth as a human, as a friend, as a brother or sister, daughter or son - it does not give value to you as a human being.

It's just a number.

Get the best number you have, and move on with your life. Serve others, Make the world a better place. You can take the ACT or the SAT and -- no matter what your score is -- you can serve others, make the world a better place, brighten someone's day. Live and learn and grow and be yourself. That matters more than anything else ever will!

Do your best, work to get your best score - but keep it in perspective.

(PS - for what it's worth, I like the ACT better!)