Following recent changes to make the SAT more comparable with the ACT, the decision of which test to take is tougher than ever.

Does it matter if you take one over the other? Will the exam you choose affect your chance of getting into certain schools? Should you take both tests? The answers depend on your performance. All colleges nationwide will accept both tests, so the key is to take the one you’ll do best on.

Consider how the differences in the structure and content of the exams might impact your score, and then choose the test that’s the best fit. Here are a few factors to consider as you decide.

Test structure and timing

The time you have to complete the SAT and ACT is roughly the same — 3 hours for the SAT versus 2 hours and 55 minutes for the ACT, without the essay section. The essay is optional, but it may be required by one of your choice schools, so be sure to check beforehand. The SAT provides 50 minutes for the essay, versus 40 minutes for the ACT’s essay portion.

The SAT is structured as follows:

  • Reading (65 minutes; 52 questions)
  • Writing (35 minutes; 44 questions)
  • Math – with a calculator (55 minutes; 58 questions)
  • Math – without a calculator (25 minutes; 20 questions)

The ACT, meanwhile, adds a Science section and divides the test like this:

  • English (45 minutes; 75 questions)
  • Math (60 minutes; 215 questions)
  • Reading Comprehension (35 minutes; 40 questions)
  • Science (35 minutes; 40 questions)

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 might a better option for you.

Test content

While the two tests are ultimately comparable in 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 your grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure. However, when it comes to the reading sections, the SAT takes a “command of evidence” approach — which assesses the ability to analyze text and make effective use of evidence — whereas the ACT focuses more on extracting details.

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 has 13 fill-in-the-blank questions, whereas the ACT is all multiple-choice. Lastly, the ACT permits the use of a calculator throughout, while the SAT only allows usage in certain sections. Since the ACT allows a calculator on all math questions, test takers are expected to answer questions more quickly.

When it comes to the essays, SAT takers will need to analyze a reading passage and explain the author’s point. ACT takers will be expected to read about an issue, review three different perspectives and then choose a stance to support.

The ACT’s critical thinking-centered science section has no separate equivalent on the SAT, delving into science-based readings with accompanying graphs, tables and research summaries, from which test-takers are expected to draw conclusions.

Practice counts

Practice materials, including questions from previous exams and mock exams, are a valuable resource to explore. Consider taking practice versions of both the SAT and ACT to see which you perform better on. Use a score comparison table to determine which score is higher. If you’ve taken the PSAT, it may be valuable to use that as a guide for how well you’ll do on the SAT. The results of these tests at your current skill level will help you choose which exam will be easier to handle once you’re prepared.

Your guidance counselor should be able to answer any questions about registration and help with preparing for the exam. They should be able to point you in the direction of additional study materials and practice exams or suggest local prep courses.

The third option

If you still can’t decide after comparing the tests, consider taking both! Since the topics are mostly the same, it won’t take much extra preparation, and you’ll have the peace of mind that the scores accompanying your applications truly represent your best.

Choosing your exam

Depending on the subjects you excel in and your ability to work under pressure, you might find you have an easier time with one test over the other. Ultimately, the decision comes down to which test will best showcase your skills.