SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Do You Need to Take Both the ACT and SAT?

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Feb 28, 2017 9:00:00 AM

SAT versus ACT, ACT General Info, SAT General Info


As a high school student, I took both the SAT and the ACT. I’d been taking the SAT every couple of years since I was in middle school, so I planned to focus primarily on it. However, as a public school student in Colorado, I was required to take the ACT by my school. My scores on the two tests were relatively similar and I ended up submitting both.

Taking both tests, whether because of school requirements or personal preference, has become an increasingly common choice for students, especially those applying to top colleges. Though it isn’t necessary to take both the ACT and SAT, doing so might be the right plan for you. This guide will walk you through the pro and cons of taking both tests.


Key Fact: Schools Only Require the ACT or the SAT, Not Both

No school will require you to submit scores from both tests, so you definitely don’t need to take both the ACT and the SAT

Keep in mind that, regardless of what you might have heard to the contrary, all schools accept both the ACT and the SAT. Though in the past selective colleges on the coasts generally preferred the SAT, that hasn't been the case for decades.

I would say that for most students it’s not worth the time investment to prepare for both tests, but read on for all the information you need to make the best decision for yourself.


3 Reasons You Might Want to Take Both Tests

There are three potential benefits to taking both the ACT and the SAT: you'll have an extra chance to excel, prepping for one can help you do better on the other, and some schools may appreciate seeing both scores.


You'll Have More Opportunities to Do Well

The most common reason students take both the ACT and the SAT is in case they can score much better on one than other. The majority of students will score similarly on both tests, but it can be tricky to determine whether you're one of the exceptions without trying both tests.

Nonetheless, there are some general patterns to which students prefer which tests. Students who have strong affinity for the ACT generally:

  • Aren't stressed by time pressures
  • Excel at skimming passages for information
  • Enjoy science, or at least aren't intimidated by it
  • Are comfortable with geometry and trigonometry

Students who prefer the SAT, on the other hand, usually:

  • Aren't confused by complicated question phrasings
  • Can do basic calculations by hand
  • Can easily explain the logic behind their answers

One benefit of this approach is that if you do score much higher one either the ACT or the SAT, you can always choose to send the only the scores from the test you did better on — even if a school doesn't have score choice.


The Tests Are Quite Similar, so Preparing for One Will Help You on the Other

The SAT redesign made the two tests more similar than ever. Because there's a lot of overlap between content and strategies for the ACT and the SAT, prepping for one will help you on the other as well.

For example, studying for the ACT science section will help you hone graph reading skills that will come in handy on the SAT's quantitative reasoning and data representation questions. On the other hand, reviewing the grammar rules you need for the SAT Writing will be equally good preparation for the ACT English.

However, if you do plan to prepare for both, be sure to start studying well ahead of when you want to be done with testing. You'll need to spend some extra time learning about whichever test you decide to take second.


Taking Both Can Provide Extra Information for Schools

As I mentioned above, most students who take both tests are applying to more selective schools, which sometimes appreciate the extra information. Doing extremely well on both tests is slightly more impressive than doing equally well on just one.

Janet Rapelye, Princeton's dean of admissions, told the New York Times that submitting both tests isn't necessary, but it can be helpful. “For us, more information is always better. If students choose one or the other, that’s fine, because both tests have value. But if they submit both, that generally gives us a little more information,” she says.

Though the tests are very similar, and treated the same by admissions committees, they do test slightly different ideas and concepts. Taking both gives schools the fullest sense of your capabilities, but keep in mind any advantage submitting both tests gives you is relatively minor.



2 Reasons Taking Both Tests Might Not Be Worth It

While there are some potential upsides to taking both the SAT and the ACT, there are also some pretty significant drawbacks.


You'll Need More Prep Time

If you want to prep for both the ACT and the SAT, you’ll have to spend a fair amount of extra time preparing. Even with the overlap between the tests, you’ll need to take a few practice tests for the second test you focus on and take the time to make sure you fully understand the differences between the two tests. That will amount to roughly 10-20 hours of extra test prep.

These hours might be better spent pursuing an activity you're excited about or working on your college essay.


Trying to Do Both Can Be Overwhelming and Confusing

The tests are similar, but not the same. As such, trying to prepare for both can end up being very overwhelming if you're the type of person who has trouble juggling a lot of different ideas at once.

Ultimately, for some students, trying to study for both the ACT and the SAT can lead to lower scores than focusing on just one test would.


How to Choose Between the SAT and the ACT

If you do settle on taking just one of the tests, there are a few main things you'll want to consider when deciding between them.


Do You Have a Particular Affinity for the SAT or the ACT?

As I mentioned above, most students score similarly on both tests, but some find one significantly easier than the other

In addition to the brief guidelines I've laid out in this post, you can use this guide to determine whether you’re likely to have strong preference for the ACT or the SAT. You might also try taking a practice test of each and comparing your scores — this approach is more accuracte, but also more of a time commitment.


Are You Required to Take One of the Tests at School?

Roughly half of the states in the US will require all public school juniors to take either the ACT or the SAT this spring. If your school requires you to take one of them, you may benefit from focusing on the required test.

Your school may offer free or discounted test prep resources and you’re more likely to have at least a basic familiarity with the test.


What's Next?

When studying for the ACT or SAT, it's helpful to have a specific goal in mind. Learn how to determine what a great score for you will be on the SAT or the ACT.

If you have more questions about the Redesigned 2016 SAT, check out our full breakdown of the test.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 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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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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