If you're in high school, you may be wondering whether you should take the SAT or the ACT. In general, the two tests have gotten much more similar since the SAT was revamped in 2016, but there are still a few differences that may sway you towards one or the other.
In this guide, I've outlined some of the key factors you should keep in mind when deciding which test to focus on and created a quiz that can help you determine which test will be better for you.
The first thing you should do is take an ACT and SAT practice test and compare your scores. We have a conversion table where you can easily see how your SAT and ACT scores stack up. If you score much higher on one test than the other, I recommend that you study for and take the test you did better on. If your scores are pretty close and you're still not sure which exam to take, keep reading.
Next, I recommend checking whether one exam or the other is required at your school. It's easier to study for a test you're already familiar with, so if your school requires either the ACT or the SAT, you'll want to seriously consider sticking to the required test.
Now, let's move on to the key reasons you might want to go with each test, starting with the SAT.
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Take the SAT If You...
#1: Panic When Faced With Time Limits
One of the most noticeable differences between the redesigned SAT and the ACT is the amount of time per question—you have much more of it on the SAT. This doesn't actually make the SAT easier, since its actual questions tend to be harder, but it does mean that the ACT feels like more of a time crunch than the SAT.
As such, doing well on the ACT requires calm in the face of time limits. If you struggle to move through material quickly or tend to panic, you'll likely do better with the SAT.
#2: Can’t Stand the Idea of Not Getting to Every Question
On the SAT, you have enough time to get to most of the questions, as long as you use it wisely. On the ACT, you probably won't finish all of the sections unless you're scoring a 30 or above.
If you have an obsessive need to answer every single question, you should stick to the SAT.
#3: Have a Hard Time Spotting Details When You Read
SAT reading questions almost always give you the line number where you can find the relevant information. Even if they don't give you the exact location, the questions are in order, so it's rarely difficult to find information in the passage.
ACT reading questions, on the other hand, are randomly ordered and frequently don't give line numbers, so finding specific details in the passage is one of the trickiest parts. If you struggle with retaining or finding details, you will probably prefer the SAT.
#4: Struggle With Geometry
ACT math has over three times as many geometry questions as the math section on the redesigned SAT. Plus, for the ACT, you need to memorize all the formulas, while on the SAT you're given them at the beginning of the section.
If you have a very hard time with geometry, consider taking the SAT.
#5: Want to Encounter as Little Science as Possible
The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not. If you dislike science or struggle with quantitative thinking, you will probably prefer the SAT.
The redesigned SAT does include science questions in each of its three sections, so there's no way to escape science entirely. Nonetheless, struggling with science will have less of an effect on your score on the SAT than it will on the ACT.
#6: Excel at Writing Analytical Essays in English Class
The SAT essay asks you to read and analyze a persuasive essay, much like you might for a class assignment. If you like English class, you'll almost certainly prefer the SAT essay to the ACT one.
That being said, neither essay affects your overall score, so a preference for one or the other shouldn't play a major role in your decision between the two tests.
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Next up: the six reasons you might prefer the ACT.
Remember you'll have to study for whichever test you choose. (Image: m00by/Flickr)
Take the ACT If You...
#1: Struggle With Vocabulary
Although it no longer has sentence completion questions, the redesigned SAT still tests more challenging vocabulary on both the reading and writing sections. It also has harder passages on the reading section and more vocab questions overall.
The ACT is the better test if you want to avoid higher-level words like "satiated" and "apprehensive" and older passages with challenging language.
#2: Can't Always Explain How You Know an Answer Is Correct
One of the big changes to the SAT is the addition of evidence questions on the reading section. These questions ask you to point to the part of the passage that supports your answer to another question—#14 is an example:
Evidence questions aren't as novel as they might seem at first, since, in theory, you should always be able to point to the support for your answer in the passage. But if this is a skill you really struggle with, consider taking the ACT instead.
#3: Are Intimidated by Doing Math Without a Calculator
The SAT has a no-calculator section, so if the idea of doing math without a calculator has you completely freaked out, you may want to stick to the ACT.
However, the no-calculator section really doesn't require any complicated calculations. In fact, all of the math questions on both tests can be done without a calculator, though some are rather challenging.
The question is really whether you feel comfortable doing some basic calculations by hand. If not, the SAT will be a challenge for you.
#4: Prefer That Different Topics Be Tested in Different Sections
One of the goals of the SAT redesign is to integrate important skills across all three sections, so there's more overlap between the different sections than on the ACT.
One key example of this new policy is the presence of quantitative questions in the reading and writing sections of the SAT. If you'd prefer to avoid this kind of concept mixing, stick with the ACT.
#5: Have a Solid Grasp of Experimental Design
If you like science, and especially if you have a good understanding of how experiments are built and know the difference between independent and dependent variables, consider taking the ACT.
The ACT asks a lot of questions about experimental design while the SAT new science questions are solely focused on reading charts and graphs. A strong grasp of these concepts will give you a considerable leg up on the ACT.
#6: Like to Give Your Opinion
The ACT essay is all about arguing for your own point (unlike the SAT essay, which is about analyzing someone else's argument). If you enjoy stating your opinion and marshaling examples to back it up, then you will probably prefer the ACT essay.
Remember, however, that you may not need to take the essay at all and that, even if you do, it doesn't affect your overall score.
You can choose your own adventure in studying. (Image: Nathan Penglington, photo by Colin Ross/Flickr)
Quiz: Should You Take the ACT or the SAT?
In case you're still on the fence about which test you want to focus on, I've created a handy quiz. It sums up all of the ideas above (except those relating to the optional essays) in one easy-to-use chart.
To use it, just go through and check "yes" or "no" for each question. Then tally up your answers and give yourself one point for each "yes." Scroll down for an explanation of what your score means.
Do you perform well under time pressure?
Are you okay with not answering every question on a test?
Do you struggle to explain why you think an answer is correct?
Do you have a hard time with high level vocab words?
Can you spot details in a passage without reading it closely?
Do you dread doing math without a calculator?
Do you excel at geometry?
Do you prefer each topic be tested separately?
Do you understand experimental design?
Do you like science?
Let's go through what your score means:
1-3: You're an SAT person!
If you answered "no" to most of the questions, you'll probably find the SAT more your style. You don't mind slightly harder questions as long as you don't have to rush and don't have to cover too much material.
4-7: You can do either!
If you answered "no" and "yes" roughly the same amount, you will probably find the tests equally approachable. If you're willing to put in the time, try taking one practice test for each and see if you have a strong preference.
8-10: You'll like the ACT!
If you answered mostly "yes," then you're more of an ACT person. You don't mind moving quickly, memorizing material, or answering questions about science.
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 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.