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The ACT vs. The SAT: Which Should I Take?

JUL 21, 2020

One very common question that students ask us year-round is: “Should I take the SAT or the ACT?” Many students seem surprised when we don’t have a solid answer as it’s quite dependent on each individual student. We typically advise students to take a practice test to see which they score better on. While it may seem daunting to have two exams to prepare for, there is a perk to this - you have the option to only submit one score, and most US schools accept both (or have waived the requirement altogether).

Both the ACT and SAT measure students’ strength in Math and English reading/writing though there are a few differences to note:

First, the timing! The SAT allows for more time per question than the SAT; The ACT allows 50 seconds per question, and the SAT provides about 70 seconds per question. So if you are the type of test taker that needs to read a question twice or proofread your work a few times, the SAT might be a better fit for you.

Second, the approach! The SAT overall focuses a bit more on critical thinking, whereas the ACT tends

to be a better fit for students that approach tests and schoolwork a bit more methodically.

Third, the differences in math! The SAT has only two main sections: evidence-based reading and writing (EBRW) and math. The ACT has four main sections: English, math, reading, and science—and an optional writing test. If you’re a student that struggles in math, you may do better on the ACT as your math score is weighed more heavily on the SAT.

In addition, only part of the SAT math section allows calculators whereas calculators are permitted throughout the entire math portion of the ACT.

Finally, there are a few differences in the ACT and SAT math sections based on approach. ACT math tends to focus more on mathematical knowledge and foundations, even in the word problems. On the other hand, the SAT math section requires students to have strong critical thinking and analysis skills. Some students have shared that they have a hard time understanding what the question is actually asking on the SAT.

Fourth, the differences in English!

In general, SAT passages are slightly more complex and require critical thinking skills and focused engagement. Whereas, many high school students find the ACT reading passages to be more straightforward and familiar.

The essay sections in the ACT vs. the SAT are also quite different. While the SAT essay provides the student with a passage and asks them to analyze it, the ACT essay provides the student with three perspectives on a contemporary issue and asks them to integrate the three perspectives into an argumentative essay. Therefore, the SAT essay deals more with in-depth analysis skills, while the ACT essay requires students to think on their feet and actively and originally support an argument.

Fifth, the ACT has a science section!

One major difference between the two tests is the science section on the ACT. One thing to note about the science section is that it does not require any scientific background (in fact, it doesn’t test biology/chemistry/physics/any science knowledge) and instead requires a strong grasp on reading data tables, charts, and graphs. Both the SAT and ACT will require an ability to analyze data, so it is beneficial to all students to possess this skill regardless of what test they decide to take.

In Summary

Overall, the ACT tends to suit students who have a methodical approach to learning, manage their time well on exams, and strong foundations in concepts taught in school. The SAT suits students who are critical thinkers and do well in school because they can decipher and critically analyze information without needing a methodical approach. However, the best way to find out which test best suits you is to take both and see for yourself! If you’ve already taken the tests and want to see how your scores compare, check out Crimson’s SAT/ACT Converter.

Shannon F.

Written by

Shannon F.

Shannon completed her Bachelors at Franklin University Switzerland where she majored in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies & minored in Social Justice and Sustainability. Shannon has a passion for learning new languages, environmental and social justice, and immersing herself in new cultures. Shannon has worked in higher education and now works as an Education Coordinator with Crimson. Shannon currently lives in California and enjoys reading, water polo, yoga, and traveling.