Should you take the ACT or SAT?

Should you take the ACT or SAT?

To some, choosing between the ACT and the SAT is merely a roll of the dice. They're practically identical, right? Colleges accept both, so why does it matter which one you choose? If these questions have crossed your mind, then you owe it to yourself to examine the difference between the two tests, to ensure you choose the best one for yourself.

Here are some of the major components of both the ACT and the SAT, to help you decide which one to take.

The ACT and the SAT, side by side

Putting some of the facts side by side may prove helpful in your decision. Here are some key facts to keep in mind when choosing between the two tests, according to Kaplan Test Prep.

  • Time to complete: You have three hours and 25 minutes to complete the ACT (writing test included), and three hours and 45 minutes to complete the SAT.
  • Structure: The ACT has four sections (English, math, reading, science) and an optional writing test, whereas the SAT has 10 sections (three critical reading, three math, three writing, and one unscored experimental section).
  • Wrong answer penalty: On the ACT, there's no penalty for wrong answers, whereas on the SAT you get a fourth of a point subtracted from your raw score for each wrong answer (math grid-ins being the exception).
  • Trigonometry: The ACT includes it, the SAT doesn't.
  • Science: The ACT has a science section, whereas the SAT does not.

It's also worth noting that while the ACT generally has more questions than the SAT (215 versus 140, according to College Admissions), the SAT requires a 25-minute essay and the ACT's 30-minute writing test is optional. So don't get too caught up in number of questions for that reason.

If writing isn't your strong suit, you might want to take the ACT, since the writing portion of that test is optional. If you feel vulnerable where science and/or trigonometry are concerned, you may want to take the SAT, since it doesn't have a science or trig section. If you still can't decide, then it's time to consider some other facts.

Other key facts to keep in mind

Here are some other things to keep in mind when deciding between the ACT and the SAT, according to The Princeton Review:

  • The ACT tends to be more to the point. "ACT questions are often easier to understand on a first read. On the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you're being asked before you can start solving the problem."
  • The SAT emphasizes vocabulary on a stronger level than the ACT.
  • The ACT is more of a big picture exam, meaning "if you're weak in one content area but strong in others, you could still end up with a very good ACT score and thus make a strong impression with the admissions committee," according to The Princeton Review. That's because on the ACT, your composite score matters and on the SAT each individual section is evaluated by college admissions folk.

It may seem like which test you choose could make all the difference in your score, but it's often not the case. According to Peterson's, "In spite of their differences, neither test is more likely than the other to produce a great score for any given test-taker. In fact, the vast majority of students perform comparably on both tests."

Another thing to keep in mind is that there aren't only two options here. Maybe your desired college is one of the few that doesn't require the ACT or the SAT. Or maybe taking both tests makes the most sense for you, to see which one you score the highest on, or even sending both sets of scores to the school to perhaps boost your application even more.

Whether you decide to take the SAT, ACT, both or neither, keep in mind that while these tests are important, they're not everything. Your SAT and ACT scores will be just one of the many factors considered when applying to college, along with transcripts, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars and much more.


The Princeton Review, The SAT vs. the ACT,

Kaplan Test Prep, Should You Take the ACT or SAT?,

"Test Prep: Choosing the ACT or SAT," Peterson's, July 30, 2013, Brendan Conway,

"SAT, ACT, Both or Neither?", Allen Grove,