ACT vs SAT: How to Choose
Updated: Mar 10
Many students struggle with choosing the ACT or the SAT. Here, we'll break down the main differences between the two.
The SAT doesn't have a science section.
While this is true, it's misleading. Students often decide to take the SAT over the ACT in hopes that they can avoid science altogether. However, the SAT includes science in the reading comprehension section. Two of the five passages will be STEM focused and extremely technical. These two passages will include a chart or graph that adds data relevant to the reading passage.
The science section in the ACT has 6 passages, but students don't need to be science enthusiasts to do well on this section. Each passage includes a description of an experiment and charts, graphs, and figures with data from the experiment. If students can interpret the data, the accompanying text often becomes superfluous. Students who take more time with reading often prefer the ACT for this reason.
The SAT has two math sections.
The SAT includes a no-calculator section with 20 questions, and a calculator section with 38 questions. Both SAT math sections include a few free response questions, which makes guessing nearly impossible. Students have a total of 80 minutes to complete both sections.
The ACT only has one math section and students can use their calculator for all 60 questions. The ACT has 2 more math questions than the SAT (which has 58 in total) and provides less time: 60 minutes instead of 80. Completing more math questions in less time deters some students from the ACT. However, the ACT doesn't have any free response questions and the ability to use a calculator on all questions speeds up calculation times dramatically.
When English is a second language, the SAT might be preferred. Half of the SAT is math, whereas only one-fourth of the ACT is math. ESL learners often prefer the SAT for this reason.
Colleges don't prefer one test over the other.
All colleges weigh both tests equally. There is not a single school that has a test preference. Choosing the ACT or the SAT should be based solely on which test the student prefers. Choosing one over the other will not increase your likelihood acceptance.
The ACT has more practice materials.
In the past, The SAT would penalize students for wrong answers by deducting 0.25 points per wrong answer. This was meant to decentivize randomly guessing on multiple choice questions. However, this policy encouraged students to practice strategizing for the test rather than focusing on the content. So in 2016, the SAT decided to become more like the ACT and stopped deducting points for wrong answers. This means that we only have a few years' worth of old SAT exams.
The ACT however hasn't changed the core structure of its exam in decades, so students can use over 20 years' worth of old ACT exams for practice.
The ACT provides less time for the optional essay section.
The ACT gives you 40 minutes to write a persuasive essay on a given topic, while the SAT gives you 50 minutes to read an article and write an essay explaining and analyzing the literary devices used in the article provided. Each student has their own opinion on which essay they prefer, but the essay section shouldn't determine which test you take.
The truth is that most schools don't give much weight to the essay score. Admissions officers can't read students' SAT or ACT essay. And why would they want to if they can read one of the multiple essays that students are required to include in their application? Most schools just want to see that an ACT or SAT essay score is actually there, regardless of the score. Taking the optional essay shows gumption and dedication, and shouldn't be considered optional at all.
The SAT gives you more time for fewer questions.
This is true. The SAT has a total of 154 questions in 180 minutes, while the ACT has a total of 210 questions in 175 minutes. That means that the SAT has 56 less questions but gives you 5 more minutes to complete them! Why would anyone choose the ACT? Keep in mind that the SAT's questions are more layered and take more time on average. The SAT also has the free response section at the end of both math sections, as well as a no calculator section. These take considerably more time than the math questions in the ACT.