ACT vs. SAT - Which test should I take?


ACT is more curriculum-based: closely related to what you've learned in high school, and tests it in a similar way
SAT is more aptitude-based: presents material that is new or unfamiliar, and asks you to analyze it in some way

ACT has less emphasis on vocabulary than the SAT

ACT is more a “reader's test” – if you are a good reader, you might do better on the ACT

ACT is more predictable: always follows the same format (order of sections)
SAT reorders its sections; always has an experimental section but students are not informed. (e.g., if the experimental section comes first, it can rattle your confidence…)

ACT occasionally has an experimental section but students are always told.

ACT is a “sprint” – lots to cover, so you need to keep moving, and students with time management problems or who tend to get “stuck” on a question may not do as well on the ACT
SAT – time is a factor, but mainly because of the trickiness of the questions

ACT has 4 multiple choices per question
SAT has 5 multiple choices per question

ACT has score choice: students have the option not to have the scores sent to schools, if they aren't happy


Structure and Content of the ACT and SAT

ACT has more “real world” problems, more word problems, higher level topics; more straightforward. No formulas are provided. Occasionally, irrelevant information is included.
SAT doesn't throw in “red herrings” – all information provided is relevant to the problem.

ACT corresponds to the multiple choice writing section of the SAT. Asks you to revise and edit a piece of writing. Significant emphasis on punctuation and rhetorical skills.

Reading comprehension:
Both are similar, but ACT is more predictable (actual test may be more similar to practice tests than the SAT). Longer passages than the SAT. Much less emphasis on vocabulary. The questions do not necessarily follow the sequence of the passage (as they do in the SAT).

ACT covers science, SAT does not. For ACT: Lab science experience is helpful, but questions do not require prior knowledge. 20% is reading comprehension about science; 80% is interpretation of tables, charts and graphs.

ACT is 30 minutes, at the end of the test. Prompts are more contemporary and concrete.
SAT is 25 minutes, at the beginning of the test. Prompts are more philosophical and abstract.

Extended time:
SAT: students must sit out the entire extended time for each section even if they've finished
ACT: students can move on when a section is completed


How to Choose? It All Depends on You:

  • If you're a “puzzle-solver” - you might do better on the SAT
  • If you don't work too hard in school but you're smart and clever - SAT
  • If you're a hard worker in school and get good grades - you might do better on the ACT
  • If you're a good reader with a weak vocabulary - ACT
  • If you're anxious and don't handle time pressure very well - SAT