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ACT vs SAT: Which Students Should Take Which?

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jun 26, 2015 10:23:20 AM

ACT Reading, ACT Writing



As a high school student, you’re probably wondering whether you should take the SAT or the ACT. Which one will give you a better score? Is one easier than the other?

The answer is not as straightforward as you might think. Everyone has different test-taking strengths and learning styles. Based on these factors, it might be to your advantage to take one test over the other.

In this article I’ll go through a list of different strengths and weaknesses you could have as a test-taker and as a student in general and which test you should take based on these qualities.

Test-Taking Abilities and Style

These are a few common pitfalls unrelated to content that students encounter on standardized tests. It might be better for you to take one test over the other based on your experience with these issues. 


You’re an anxious tester

If you tend to get really nervous on test day, you are probably better off with the ACT. The ACT has much more predictable structure and content than the SAT, so you can prepare more confidently.

On the reading section of the ACT, for example, there are always four passages in the same sequence of genres: Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. On the SAT, the structure is not as reliable. We know the topics that appear and the types of passages and questions, but not their order on the test.

On the ACT, once the section for a subject is over, that’s it - you’re done with it for the whole test. This is in contrast to the SAT, which has ten sections, six of which are ordered randomly. The SAT also has an experimental section on every test that won’t count towards your scores and sometimes contains unfamiliar material, which can throw you off. You won’t have to worry about this on the ACT.


You get tripped up by confusing wording

It’s a better idea to take the ACT if this is a problem for you. The SAT has weird question wording that could trick you if you often get confused by that type of thing. The ACT is very straightforward in its question wording, so you usually have a clear sense of what the questions are asking right away rather than having to think about it too much first. 

For example, a reading question on the ACT might ask “What was Sam trying to accomplish by talking to her sister?” A reading question on the SAT might ask something more like “If the author of passage 1 reads lines 16-24 of passage 2, which of the following is she least likely to offer as a response?” You have to jump through a couple more hoops of “this, not that” logic before you can answer the question.


You tend to run out of time

If you have time problems, it’s a better idea to take the SAT. Why? You get more time per question, and it’s broken up into ten short sections rather than four long ones. This means that if you have a time problem on one section, it will not necessarily tank your scores. You will have a couple other sections to make up for it (3 math, 3 critical reading, 2 writing). 

On the ACT, each subject is just one long section, so if you get stuck on a difficult question and end up messing up your timing for a whole section, it’s going to have a much bigger impact on your scores. Anecdotal evidence from students also points to more problems with time pressure on the ACT than the SAT. 

But what if I’m an anxious tester AND I tend to run out of time, which test should I take?

If you have both of these problems, you should plan on doing a lot more prep before your next test. The decision is probably going to rest on where your strengths lie as far as content, which I’ll get to in the next section.

body_hourglass-1.jpgTime: The one true enemy of us all.

Subject Strengths

Let's move on to actual test content. I'll go through the different subject areas tested on the SAT and ACT and which test is the better one to take based on whether you excel or struggle in these subjects.



Case 1: I consider numbers to be my only real friends

If you have great math skills, the test where you stand to gain the biggest advantage is the ACT. The ACT tests more advanced math concepts than the SAT, and no formulas are provided for you (except on some individual questions). It also requires math problem-solving speed and stamina - you will need to solve 60 questions in a row with only a minute for each question.
The ACT asks math questions in a more straightforward way than the SAT, so if your math skills are good but your reading comprehension skills are less so, the ACT is the test you want to take.

Case 2: Math fills me with wrath

You might be better off with the SAT if math is not your strong suit. The questions are more broken up (three sections, two 25 minute and one 20 minute), so if you mess up or run out of time on one math section you won’t necessarily ruin your score. You will have more time per question (67 seconds rather than 60), and the math concepts tested are not as advanced. The SAT also gives you formulas to work with at the start of the math sections.



Case 1: I’m a word nerd

If you enjoy reading, it’s likely that you already have a strong base of vocabulary and can read passages fairly quickly. If you know a lot of advanced vocabulary words, you’re better off taking the SAT. Sentence completion and vocabulary in context questions make up a significant portion of the critical reading section, and a prodigious vocabulary will give you a leg up. There are also a lot of confusingly worded questions on the SAT in general. You’ll have a much easier time surmounting that obstacle compared to students who aren’t as good at reading.
On the ACT, knowing advanced vocabulary won’t help your score much if at all. You might consider taking the ACT if you’re a fast reader and are very good at reading comprehension, not just vocabulary. These skills will help you on the Reading AND Science sections.

Case 2: I’m a Spark Notes type of guy/gal

This is tough, because reading skills are very important on both tests. I’d say if you are not as fond of reading you should take the ACT. Though there is a lot of reading involved and a lot of time pressure, the questions tend to be more straightforward and less confusing than those on the SAT. You also don’t need to know advanced vocabulary to do well. Practice reading quickly and understanding passages before the test - this will be extremely important on Reading and Science.

body_reading-802.jpgMy brain will just absorb the words. That's how reading works, right?


Case 1: I'm the grammar police, and you're ALL UNDER ARREST

If you're good at grammar, you could really take either test, but you'll probably have the biggest advantage on the SAT. The multiple choice on the SAT Writing section is similar to the ACT English section, but it is less passage-based. Most of it is identifying errors in sentences and improving sentences out of context. On the ACT English section, questions are always asked alongside a corresponding passage, so you have more context to work with for your answers.

Case 2: I don't care 'bout no stupid grammar  

The SAT Writing section and the ACT English section will both be tough for you if you’re not so great at grammar, so study the grammar rules beforehand! The ACT English section might be slightly easier because, as mentioned above, it asks its questions in the context of long passages. But it also has a lot more questions (75 vs. 49 on the SAT), so it's a trade-off. 

Essay Writing

Case 1: I’m the next Hemingway

If you're a great writer, you should take the SAT. On the SAT you will be writing an essay no matter what, and you only get 25 minutes to do it. The essay also accounts for about a third of your Writing subscore. Essay prompts on the SAT are varied and require you to formulate opinions and examples to support them very quickly, which is difficult if you don't already have strong writing skills. 

Case 2: I don’t have the write stuff

If you’re not as into writing, the ACT is a better choice. You don’t even have to write an essay, and if you do take it with Writing the essay won’t impact your composite score. You also get 30 minutes for the essay rather than 25, and prompts tend to be more straightforwardACT essay prompts usually ask about issues related to high school, so they make it easier for you to figure out your opinion on the question from personal experience. 



Case 1: I am the lovechild of Bill Nye and his very attractive microscope (don’t ask me about logistics)

Take the ACT! Although the science section doesn’t actually require much scientific knowledge beyond basic concepts you learned in elementary school, knowing a lot of science can help you get a better grasp on the experiments and data presented on the test. You’ll have a much easier (and faster) time understanding what’s going on and answering the questions if you are familiar with the science involved.

Case 2: I break out in hives when I see a test tube.

If you don’t like science, take the SAT. You should know that you CAN still do well on the science section of the ACT without knowing much science at all. However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the data presented and unfamiliar background information even if the questions themselves are not that hard. If you think seeing chemical equations or physics on one of these standardized tests will give you a heart attack, go with the SAT so you won’t have to worry about it.

body_testtubes-1.jpgAughhhh I said no science! You KNOW I'm allergic!

Summary and Follow Up

In deciding which test to take, you should consider both your testing style and your subject strengths. Here's a summary of the situations listed above and my corresponding test recommendations:

Test anxiety? ACT
Easily confused by questions? ACT
Time problems? SAT

Great at math? ACT
Great at reading? SAT
Great at grammar? SAT
Great at writing? SAT
Great at science? ACT


Additionally, If you have a strong imbalance in your abilities in different subjects, you might be better off with the ACT. This is because your individual scores on each section are not nearly as important to colleges are they are on the SAT. On the ACT, your composite score is pretty much the only thing that matters. You also won’t have to deal with switching unpredictably between subjects you know well and subjects you struggle with during the test. 

If you're still not entirely sure which test is best for you or which strengths and weaknesses you have, you should take an ACT practice test and an SAT practice test (each with the official time constraints so you'll know if running out of time is a problem!). 

Look up average standardized test scores for colleges you would like to attend to figure out your target score for both the ACT and the SAT. Then, score your practice tests and see where you end up.  Is one test score significantly closer to your target score than the other? If so, that's the test you want to take. If the scores are similar, you may need to decide based on which test format makes you feel more comfortable. On test day, you'll be under a lot more pressure!


What's Next?

If you're still looking for more details on how the SAT and the ACT compare to each other, check out this article.

Trying to decide when to take the SAT or ACT? Read this guide to find the best test date for you!

For more advice on how to combat your weaknesses on either test, take a look at our advice on how to review your mistakes on the SAT or ACT and how to improve your overall scores on both tests. 


Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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