College entrance exam requirements have been changing. Confirm testing requirements at the schools where you plan to apply. For information on test availability, check the SAT® and ACT® sites.

Long before you decide what school you’ll attend, you’ll face another big college-related question: Should you take the SAT® or ACT® While some schools may not require them, all US colleges accept both tests. So the key is to take the test you think you’ll do best on. 

While the tests aren’t markedly different, Laura Hubbard, head of academics at online SAT math tutor Everydae, suggests focusing on only one of the tests. “Trying to prepare for both at the same time will lead to study confusion — using the wrong strategies on the wrong test,” she says. To help you decide which test you’re going to take, here’s a breakdown of how the two tests compare and a few other factors to consider. 

Test Structure and Time

The two tests take roughly the same amount of time. The SAT is exactly three hours while the ACT shaves off five minutes. However, these times don’t include the optional essay section, which is an additional 50 minutes for the SAT and 40 minutes for the ACT. While essays are optional for both tests, some schools require it for admissions. Be sure to check with the colleges you’re planning to apply to.

As of 2020, the SAT is structured as follows:

  • Reading (65 minutes, 52 questions)
  • Writing and Language (35 minutes, 44 questions)
  • Math (80 minutes, 58 questions)
  • Essay, optional (50 minutes, one question)
  • Total time: 3 hours without essay; 3 hours and 50 minutes with essay.

The ACT includes a science section and divides like this:

  • English (45 minutes, 75 questions)
  • Math (60 minutes, 60 questions)
  • Reading Comprehension (35 minutes, 40 questions)
  • Science (35 minutes, 40 questions)
  • Essay, optional (40 minutes, one question)
  • Total time: 2 hours and 55 minutes without essay; 3 hours and 35 minutes with essay.

The biggest difference in the structure is the amount of time you get for each question. Do you work better under pressure, moving through material quickly and precisely without losing focus? If so, the ACT’s faster-paced sections might be a better choice. If, on the other hand, you prefer taking the time to consider and double-check your answers, the SAT may be the better option for you.

“Most of my students agree that the ACT feels faster. However, the tradeoff with the SAT is that some students find the questions more nuanced. So, while it might seem that you aren’t as pressed for time, the questions might take you longer,” says Brett Murphy Hunt, owner of Brett E. Murphy Tutoring & Consulting

Test Content

While the two tests are comparable in terms of difficulty, there are subtle differences in content that test-takers should be aware of.

The writing section of the SAT and the English section of the ACT both test grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure. However, when it comes to the reading sections, the SAT takes a “command of evidence” approach — which assesses your ability to analyze text and make effective use of evidence — whereas the ACT focuses more on extracting details. “The ACT reading section does not include line-evidence questions like the SAT, and many students report that the questions seem more straightforward,” Murphy Hunt explains. “The pace is quicker, but students who are more linear thinkers tend to have an easier time with the ACT.”

The math sections have more pronounced differences. Both tests cover arithmetic, algebra, geometry and trigonometry, but the SAT also includes some data analysis. The SAT also has a math section where calculators aren’t permitted. “Students who struggle with mental math or who just want the safety of being able to turn to their calculator when they need to are usually going to prefer the ACT,” says Hubbard.

When it comes to the essays, SAT takers are asked to analyze a reading passage and explain the author’s primary point. ACT takers are expected to read about an issue, review three different perspectives and then select one to support in their response.

The ACT critical thinking-centered science section has no equivalent on the SAT, but Murphy Hunt says labeling it “science” is a bit of a misnomer. “It presupposes very little scientific knowledge. It’s more of a logic, reading comprehension and data analysis section,” she says. “Don’t immediately write off the ACT because bio and chem aren’t your favorite subjects.”

How Colleges View Each Test

All colleges in the United States that require standardized tests accept both the SAT and ACT. Most will tell you they have no preference, and they likely mean it. 

“The SAT is well known amongst high school students and school counselors because it has been the dominant test longer,” says Carrie E.L. Thompson, director of undergraduate admissions at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. But, she says that’s not the case at the college level. “Admissions officers do not view the ACT and SAT differently.”

Ultimately, the decision of which test to take is a personal one. If after understanding the differences between the tests you’re still unsure, Hubbard recommends taking a practice test for both tests. Once you have the results, you can use a score comparison tool to determine if there’s a significant difference between your scores and focus on the test where you innately perform better. 


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