SAT vs ACT: Which One Should I Take?

These days, one of the first questions I’ll hear from the frantic parent of a rising high school junior is, “should my child take the SAT or the ACT?”

Interestingly, as recently as 10 years ago, almost no one would ask that question. In some parts of the country, you took the ACT. In others, you took the SAT. Almost no one gave the issue a second thought.

But as parents and students have become increasingly sophisticated about the college admissions process, many have started to make the decision between these two tests based on strategy and information instead of an accident of geography. Leading us to the question: How do you determine which test is the best fit for you?

The first piece of advice I always give concerned parents is pretty straightforward: The best way to determine which test is best for a given student is to have the student take both tests.

Take Both Tests?

Take both the SAT and the ACT under timed conditions. Ideally, take real tests—actual, released SATs and ACTs that come from the makers of the exams—rather than fake tests made by test preparation providers. While there are many companies out there capable of producing pretty good fake tests, those tests are never quite the same, and the questions are not tested with the same level of rigor.

After you get scores from both tests, you can compare the results and see whether the student clearly favors one test over the other. There are numerous ACT/SAT concordances online. I happen to prefer this one, though do note that if you use it, you are only counting the Reading and the Math score towards the SAT total score that will allow you to compare the scores. If the scores are roughly equivalent, then you should go with student preference, which may be impacted by some of the differences between the two tests, as listed below.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary remains a significant factor on the SAT, directly tested in 19 of the 67 Reading questions, and often relevant in other questions. Vocabulary plays only a minor role in the ACT. Students with weak vocabularies might want to avoid the SAT.

Winner: ACT

Science

The ACT has a so-called "Science" section. Granted, the section is actually more about your ability to read and interpret charts and graphs than about actual science, but more science-averse students may still find it challenging, and a few questions do require a bit of minimal science to know the answer. More science-averse students might prefer the SAT.

Winner: SAT

Math

SAT math is trickier, but it tests easier content. ACT math tests harder content (including trigonometry, matrices, and imaginary numbers, none of which appear on the SAT), but it relies less on tricky wording for difficulty. While word problems and tricky wording appear on both tests, students are probably slightly better off with the ACT if they find word problems difficult.

Winner: Act

Reading Comprehension

The SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT, but it asks slightly harder questions. As a result, students who can complete enough questions on the ACT usually find it to be the better choice, but students who have trouble with pacing may prefer the SAT.

Winner: SAT

Writing and Grammar

The multiple choice questions in the SAT Writing Section focus almost entirely on grammar and style (along with a very narrow range of punctuation). The ACT brings in a lot more punctuation and a lot more editing questions. This requires that you understand the structure content of the tested passages. The ACT is probably easier for strong English students, whereas the SAT is easier to study for, as the range of tested content is more narrow.

The essay on the SAT is the first section and will be about a very broad, abstract question, such as what makes a person heroic, or whether it’s better to be original or to imitate others’ success. The essay on the ACT is the last section and will be about a specific, concrete question, such as whether you should wear uniforms in school or whether there should be a minimum high school grade requirement to get a driver’s license.

Winner: Tie

Extra Time and Testing Accommodations

The most common timing accommodations on the SAT are either 1.5 time or double time. In both cases, the time is evenly distributed among all the sections. In other words, if you have 1.5 time, you get 37.5 minutes per section for the 25 minute sections, 30 minutes per section for the 20 minute section, and 15 minutes for the 10 minute section.

On the ACT, double time is practically unheard of. Students most often are granted 1.5 time, and the time is unstructured, meaning that they take the total amount of time allotted to all the multiple choice sections of the test, multiply that time by 1.5, and allow the student to distributed the time as he or she deems best. The essay timing in calculated separately.

This probably makes the extended time version of the ACT more student-friendly than the extended-time version of the SAT, though there are many variations on these basic accommodations.

Winner: Tie

Which Test Do Schools Prefer?

Colleges and universities don’t prefer one test over the other; take whichever test you think is the best fit for you.

Winner: Tie

So Which Test Should I Take?

The best way to establish which test to prepare for is to take one of each. If you don’t have time to do that, look at the differences I outline above and make your best guess at which you’ll like better. Start to study for that one until you have time to take one of each. It might seem really time consuming, but the payoff is a better ACT or SAT score, which will help strengthen your college application.