Should I take the SAT or the ACT? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

In a recent poll, we asked 82 Princeton students which test they took: the SAT, the ACT, or both.  Here were the results:

Of our sample, ~50% took only the SAT, 10% took only the ACT, and ~40% took both tests.

Which bucket do you fall under?

  • ~60% of our poll respondents focused on either the SAT or ACT.  You may, like these students, find that you prefer one test over the other.
  • You may, like ~40% of our polled students, decide to take both tests.  If you end up doing this, we still recommend you understand the key differences between the tests, and we recommend that you focus on preparing for one test at a time.

So which test should you take?

To help figure out YOUR test-taking plan, we’ll offer a general overview of both tests, and we’ll discuss the key differences between the tests.

We’ll also dig into these 5 questions to help you decide whether you’re an ACT person or an SAT person:

  1. Math: How do my math skills stack up against my reading and writing skills?
  2. Speed: Is speed and pacing generally a strength or weakness when I take standardized tests?
  3. Science: Do I feel comfortable interpreting charts, data, and experiments?
  4. Practice: How much practice do I need to achieve my target score?
  5. State Requirements: Do I live in a state with an SAT or ACT requirement?

If you can focus on one test and hit your target scores, you’ll free up a lot of time for other things, like schoolwork, extracurriculars, or maybe even relaxing and having some fun.


SAT vs ACT – The Different Sections

The SAT and ACT are Mostly The Same

The SAT and ACT sections have significant overlap, and much of the content on both tests is actually quite similar.  The Critical Reading section of the SAT maps to the Reading section of the ACT, the Writing and Language section of the SAT maps to the ACT English section, and the Math sections map to each other.

Both run about the same length of time: 3hrs 50 minutes for the SAT (if you take the optional essay), and 3hrs 35 minutes for the ACT (with essay).

Key Differences

The tests have some very important structural differences, though.  The ACT has an entire Science section that doesn’t exist on the SAT.  

SAT Math is separated into 2 sections: non-calculator section and calculator section, whereas the ACT has one math section that allows a calculator.

Also, notice the difference in number of questions asked: 216 (ACT) vs. 151 (SAT).  

SAT Sections

Section Length (Minutes) Number of Questions
Critical Reading

65

52

Writing and Language

35

44

Math – No Calculator

25

20

Math – Calculator

55

38

Optional Essay

50

1

Total:

3 hrs 50 min

151

(Note: during the actual test, you will have a 5 minute break after the reading section and a 10 minute break after the math – no calculator section)

ACT Sections

Section Length (Minutes) Number of Questions
English

45

75

Reading

35

40

Math

60

60

Science

35

40

Writing (Optional)

40

1

Total:

3 hrs 35 min

216

(Note: during the actual test, you will have a 10 minute break after the math section and a 5 minute break after the science section)


SAT vs ACT – Scoring

SAT Score Structure

Your SAT Score can range from 400-1600, and you can receive scores on 2 major sections and an optional essay:

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (200-800)  
    • Based on your scores from Critical Reading and Writing/Language
  • Math (200-800)
  • Optional Essay (Three scores – Reading, Analysis, Writing) ranging from 2-8

ACT Score Structure

Your Composite ACT score can range from 1-36.  The Composite score is an average of the scores in 4 subject areas: Math, Science, Reading, and English.  

  • Composite Score: 1-36
  • Subject Scores: Math, Science, Reading, Writing (each receives a score between 1-36)
  • Optional Essay: 2-12

Key Question #1: Is test taking speed a strength or weakness for you?

For most students, time is one of the biggest factors that influences their decision to take the SAT vs. ACT.

 In general, if you struggle with speed and pacing on standardized tests, the SAT is likely the better test for you.  The ACT gives far less time per question throughout the entire test.

SAT Time Per Question ACT Time Per Question
SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading

75 Seconds

52.5 Seconds

SAT Writing and Language vs. ACT English

47.7 Seconds

36 Seconds

SAT Math vs. ACT Math

82.8 Seconds

60 seconds

Science

N/A

52.5 Seconds

If you struggle with reading speed, working quickly through math questions, or quickly interpreting charts and data, the ACT may be difficult for you to finish on time.   

Key Question #2: How’s your math?

In general, if you tend to have a strong preference for math (vs. reading and writing), you may fare better on the SAT.  

Here’s why: the SAT has 2 major scores, (1) Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and (2) Math.  Math makes up 50% of your SAT Score.  

On the other hand, the ACT Composite Score is an average of 4 subject scores: Reading, Writing, Math, and Science.  Math contributes 25% of your composite ACT Score.  If you tend to struggle with Math on Standardized Tests, the ACT might be better for you.

In general, the ACT is better for “hiding” a weak subject area, since your composite score is an average of four subscores and your main SAT score is a sum of 2 major scores.  

Key Question #3: Do you feel comfortable with Science?

The Science section makes up 25% of your Composite ACT score and doesn’t even exist on the SAT, so your comfort with this section is a huge factor to consider.  

If you like analyzing experiments and interpreting charts, you’ll probably like the ACT Science section.  The ACT Science section doesn’t require you to know many specific science facts, but it does test your ability to read about specific experiments and their results.  You are required to understand and analyze the experimental process and also the data and results of the experiment.

Key Question #4: How much practice do you need to achieve your target score?

If you are going to engage in an intense practice program and you plan on taking several official practice tests and using as many official practice questions as possible, the edge goes to the SAT for having better test questions available to students for practice.   

This is an often overlooked consideration.  The key to maximizing your test score is building a study plan that is based on targeted review of your key weakness areas.  A critical component of your studying plan is effective review of high-quality practice questions that mimic the questions you will see on the actual test.  

By far, the best practice questions come directly from the test makers themselves.  At PrepMaven, we find that the set of official practice questions offered by the College Board, authors of the SAT, to be more helpful than the official practice materials offered by the ACT.  

The main difference is quantity: The College Board publishes a book of 8 full-length Official Practice Tests (each official practice test is also available for free online).  The Official ACT Guide has 3 full-length official tests, and they also have one official test free to download online.

Of course, there are many publishers that create additional preparation materials and practice questions for both tests.  However, when it comes to practice questions, even the best publishers cannot create practice questions that are as close to the real test questions as the test makers themselves.  Since using official practice questions to practice and study is such an important part of the preparation process, this is a very important factor to consider.

Key Question #5: Do you live in a state with test-taking requirements?

As of 2017, there are 25 states that require students to take either the ACT or the SAT.  The data below is adapted from 2017 EdWeek data.  

State High School Test
Alabama ACT
Colorado SAT
Connecticut SAT
Delaware SAT
District of Columbia SAT
Hawaii ACT
Idaho SAT or ACT
Illinois SAT
Kentucky ACT
Louisiana ACT
Maine SAT
Michigan SAT
Mississippi ACT
Missouri ACT
Montana ACT
Nebraska ACT
Nevada ACT
New Hampshire SAT
North Dakota ACT (or WorkKeys)
Ohio SAT or ACT
South Carolina ACT
Tennessee ACT or SAT
Utah ACT
Wisconsin ACT
Wyoming ACT

If you live in one of these states, you should still focus on your preferred test. If your preferred test is the same as the required test, then great! If not, then just make sure you sit for the mandatory test at some point. You can still elect to take the other test (and you may use Score Choice to decide which test, if any, to send to colleges).  


Key Takeaways:

By answering the 5 key questions above, you should have enough information to get a basic feel for which test may be more suitable for you.  To quickly review:

  • The SAT is most likely better for you if:
    • You benefit from having more time per question
    • You plan to do a lot of preparation – keep in mind that the SAT has more official practice tests and questions available than the ACT
    • You prefer not to take the extra Science section
  • The ACT is most likely better for you if:
    • You work quickly
    • Your math skills are much weaker than reading and writing skills
    • You’ll benefit from taking the Science section
  • You might end up taking both tests, and this is OK
    • 41.5% of our poll respondents took both the SAT and the ACT
    • If you take both tests, we still recommend you focus on preparing for one at a time

If your state has a testing requirement, then you’ll have to take that test in addition to your preferred test (if different).


So Which Test Should You Focus On? 

Our recommendation to find out which test to focus on is quite simple: take a timed practice test of each and see which one yields the better score.  This exercise has several benefits:

  • It kickstarts the preparation process. 
  • You find out which test gives you better results
  • You get measurable data to see your strength and weakness areas.  This data can be used to customize your preparation plan.

What Should You Do Next? Step-by-Step Instructions

If you haven’t decided on SAT vs. ACT yet, now is the best time to take the process to the next step.  

Step 1: Take a full-length official SAT

Step 2: Take a full-length official ACT (the following week)

  • Visit PrepMaven’s Free Official ACT Practice Test page and download one of our free practice tests
  • Visit PrepMaven’s ACT Proctoring Page for detailed instructions on how to self-administer the test
  • Take a full-test under timed testing conditions!

Step 3: Determine which test you performed better on

  • Compare the results using our SAT vs. ACT score comparison table (coming soon)
  • Focus your prep on that test.  Even if you end up taking both tests, you should start off studying for your preferred test. 

 


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.