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, this 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.
4 Reasons You Might Want to Take Both Tests
There are four 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, some schools might appreciate seeing both scores, and you'll get more test dates to choose from.
#1: 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 the 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 a 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 on either the ACT or the SAT, you can always choose to send only the scores from the test you did better on—even if a school doesn't use SAT/ACT Score Choice.
#2: The Tests Are 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 SAT Writing will be equally good preparation for 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.
#3: Taking Both Tests 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 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."
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; however, keep in mind that any advantage submitting both tests gives you will be relatively minor.
#4: You'll Get More Test Dates to Choose From
This can be helpful if you're worried about finding time to take a test and have a pretty stringent schedule at certain times of year. For example, if you're super busy in the winter and would rather take a test in the spring or early summer, this gives you three SAT dates (March, May, and June) plus two ACT dates (April and June) to choose from.
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.
#1: 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. This will amount to roughly 10-20 hours of extra test prep.
#2: 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: 4 Factors
If you do settle on taking just one of the tests, there are four factors you'll want to consider when deciding between them.
#1: 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 accurate but also more of a time commitment.
#2: 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. If your school requires you to take one of them, you might benefit from focusing on the required test.
What's more, your school might offer free or discounted test-prep resources, ultimately making you more familiar with just one of the two tests.
#3: Does One Test Better Suit Your Strengths?
Though the SAT and ACT have a lot in common these days, they still have a few big differences that you can use to determine which test might be a better fit for your particular strengths.
Some of the biggest differences between the two tests are as follows:
|Science Section?||% Geometry Qs on Math Section||Avg Time per Question||No-Calculator Section?||Math Formulas Chart?||Grid-in Math Qs?|
As you can see, if you're not too good at geometry and need more time per question, the SAT will likely be a better fit for your skills. On the other hand, if you hate doing math without a calculator but love science, the ACT might work better for you.
Look at what's on each test and then decide whether one might be a better fit for you. And don't just think about your strengths—consider your weaknesses, too. For example, if you're not good at grid-in math questions, you might have a better shot at getting a high Math score on the ACT than you would on the SAT.
#4: Which Test Offers More Convenient Test Dates?
The last big factor to consider is which test offers more convenient test dates that work with your schedule.
As I mentioned above, both the SAT and ACT are administered seven times a year (excluding school-day testing); however, these test dates are not the same.
The chart below shows what months the SAT and ACT are administered each school year:
As the chart indicates, some months offer both the SAT and ACT while others only offer one or the other (note that January is the only month that offers neither test).
Ultimately, it's important to consider which test can give you more flexibility and fits better with your schedule. For example, if you have the whole summer to study, you might want to take the SAT since it offers an August test date. Or, if you have winter to study and want to get the test over with before spring activities start, the February ACT might be an ideal fit.
Still Want to Take Both the ACT and SAT? 3 Tips
If, after lots of consideration, you still want to take both the ACT and SAT, you'll need to know how to prepare accordingly so that you don't get overwhelmed or make any mistakes on test day. Here are our top three tips for keeping your brain in check as you prep for the SAT and ACT.
#1: Focus on One Test at a Time
The most important point is to focus on one test at a time in your prep. This means you shouldn't take both tests in the same month or even in back-to-back months, as doing this can confuse and overwhelm you.
Ideally, you'll take one test and then the other at least three months later. We typically advise prepping for at least three to six months before the SAT/ACT, so giving yourself this amount of time in-between test dates should allow you to take one test and then completely transition your mindset to prepping for the other.
Taking both the ACT and SAT around the same time might sound like a smart idea, but in the end all it's going to do is mix up information in your head and exhaust you. So take our advice and spread out your dates!
#2: Use Resources Specific to Your Test
While some resources can work for both the SAT and ACT, most target just one of the two tests. As a result, don't try to use SAT resources for your ACT prep, or ACT resources for your SAT prep. Doing this will ultimately end up confusing you, and you'll learn the wrong strategies and content.
The only high-quality resource I recommend using for both tests is Khan Academy. This free website has partnered with the College Board to offer tons of video tutorials and official SAT practice questions. While it doesn't specifically cater to the ACT, it's got a lot of helpful strategies and explanations for math, reading, and writing that you can apply to your ACT prep as well.
#3: Come Up With Separate Study Plans
Lastly, you'll need to spend some time coming up with two separate study plans for the SAT and ACT. Even if you plan to give yourself the same amount of time to study for both tests (say, four months for each test), how you spend that time will likely vary slightly depending on which test you're taking.
The main reason for this is the content differences on the tests. Remember, the ACT has a whole section the SAT doesn't have—Science! That fact alone should be reason enough to come up with a different study schedule.
Another reason is your own goals. What score are you aiming for on the SAT? The ACT? Where are you currently scoring on each test? Once you've answered these questions, you can begin to figure out how to structure and customize your study schedules.
If you have more questions about the redesigned 2016 SAT, check out our full breakdown of the test.
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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.