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 might have as a test-taker and student and let you know which test you should take based on those 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.
You Get Tripped up by Confusing Wording
It’s better to take the ACT if this is a problem for you. The SAT sometimes has weird question wording that could trick you if you're often confused by that type of thing. The ACT is more straightforward, 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 there's not quite as much material to read. 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 rests on where your strengths lie for content, which I’ll get to in the next section.
Time: The one true enemy of us all.
Let's move on to test content. I'll go through the different subject areas tested on the SAT and ACT and tell you 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.
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 (two sections, one 25 minute and one 55 minute), so if you mess up or run out of time on one math section you won’t necessarily ruin your score. You also have slightly more time per question, and the SAT 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're 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.
My 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.
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!
Case 1: I’m the next Hemingway
Case 2: I don’t have the write stuff
Prompts on the ACT ask students to consider how changes in the world today will affect humanity in a broad sense, and you can use abstract reasoning and even made up examples to support your points.
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.
Aughhhh 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!
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 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:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.