High school sophomores and juniors anticipating college application often wonder which standardized test to take.  SAT or ACT?  Do colleges prefer one test over the other?  Is one easier?

The following graph illustrates 3274 school responses to a recent survey conducted by The Princeton Review.

ACT or SAT graph



Where does this leave you?  Should you take both tests to cover your bases?

If you compile a list of colleges you’d like to apply to, consider each school’s test requirements.  Do they require test scores?  In the cited survey, 865 schools responded that they are ‘test optional,’ meaning they de-emphasize testing in the application process, a topic we’ll explore more fully in another post.  If the schools on your list require test scores, do they prefer or require one exam, or do they accept SAT and ACT scores equally?  Knowing their preferences will help you to decide which test to take.

When schools accept the exams equally, you should consider these commonly cited differences between the two test formats:

  • The SAT is an aptitude test and evaluates reasoning skills and the application of knowledge.  The ACT is an achievement test and evaluates what has been learned.
  • ACT questions tend to be straightforward and easily understood on a first read, while SAT questions may require you to figure out what you are being asked.
  • The ACT includes a science section to assess reading and reasoning skills around a given set of facts.  SAT subject tests, which are supplemental to the main exam and may be required by some schools and programs, measure mastery of specific subject areas, including science, mathematics, history, English and foreign language.
  • The 30-minute ACT writing test is optional and scored separately, although many schools require applicants to take it.  The 25-minute SAT essay is mandatory.
  • The SAT places stronger emphasis on vocabulary.
  • The ACT tests more advanced math concepts, although the straightforwardness of questions may help in finding solutions.  The SAT offers supplemental subject tests in mathematics for those demonstrating advanced skills.
  • The SAT is broken into 10 sections covering critical reading, math and writing, with the required essay at the beginning.  The ACT presents each content area in one chunk, with the optional essay at the end.
  • Admissions officers care about your score on each section of the SAT but are concerned with your composite, ‘big picture’ score on the ACT.  Thus, if you are weak in one content area but strong in others, the ACT may a better choice for you.
  • Both tests are timed.  The SAT allows 3 hours 45 minutes to complete a 25-minute essay, six 25-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing), two 20-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing) and a 10-minute multiple-choice writing section.  The ACT allows 205 minutes to complete a 45-minute English section, a 60-minute math section, two 35-minute sections for reading and science, and the optional 30-minute essay.
  • SAT scoring deducts .25 points for each wrong answer but the ACT does not deduct for incorrect answers.  This means that guessing could hurt you when taking the SAT but not the ACT.

Consider these differences before registering to take either exam.  If you’d like further assessment, give us a call!