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 it comes time to decide what school you’ll attend, you’ll need to make another important college-related decision: Should you take the SAT® or ACT® exam? While some schools may not require applicants to submit standardized test scores, all US colleges accept both tests. So the key is to take the test you think you’ll do best on. 

While the two tests aren’t markedly different, Laura Hubbard, head of academics at online SAT math tutor Everydae, suggests focusing your efforts on just one. “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 whether you’ll take the ACT or SAT exam, here’s a breakdown of how they compare, plus a few other factors to consider when making the choice. 

Test Structure and Time

The two tests take roughly the same amount of time. The SAT exam is exactly three hours while the ACT shaves off five minutes. Note, however, that the ACT offers an optional essay section, which adds another 40 minutes to the duration of the test. The SAT exam no longer includes an essay section at all. 

As of 2022, the SAT exam is structured as follows:

  • Reading (65 minutes, 52 questions)
  • Writing and Language (35 minutes, 44 questions)
  • Math (80 minutes, 58 questions)
  • Total time: 3 hours 

The ACT, which includes a science section, breaks down as follows:

  • 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, 1 question)
  • Total time: 2 hours and 55 minutes without essay; 3 hours and 35 minutes with essay.

The primary difference between the two test designs comes down to how much 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 exam may be the better option for you.

“Most of my students agree that the ACT feels faster. However, the tradeoff with the SAT test 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 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 exam and the English section of the ACT both test grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. However, when it comes to the reading sections, the SAT exam 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 test, 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 exam also includes some data analysis. The SAT test also has a math section for which 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.

The ACT critical-thinking-centered science section has no equivalent on the SAT exam, 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.” 

The optional ACT essay section also has no SAT equivalent. Test takers are expected to read about an issue, review three different perspectives and select one to support in their written response.

How Colleges View Each Test

As stated above, all colleges in the United States that require standardized tests accept either the SAT or ACT score. Most will tell you they have no preference, and they likely mean it. 

“The SAT exam is well known among 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. However, she says that’s not the case at the college level. “Admissions officers do not view the ACT and SAT tests differently.”

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

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