“Should I take the SAT or ACT?”
It’s by far the most frequent question we get asked. That makes sense. It’s also the most important question to answer.
Before the SAT changed in 2016, the logic was to take each test once, see which one you did better on, then focus on that test. Logically most students held off on doing any sort of prep until after they had decided which test they were going to work on. Before the new SAT came out, students often did significantly better on one test over the other.
Since the remake of the SAT, those differences have closed. Almost all the students we work with these days see scores that are comparable between the two tests. When that happens how do you know which test to focus on?
It’s not about the math
I’ve heard a lot of students getting advice centered on how well they do in math. The logic goes that the SAT is 50% math and 50% reading and writing, so if a student isn’t strong in math, they should focus on the ACT.
I wish I could tell you in person how terribly wrong this advice is. The math on the SAT isn’t particularly more difficult than the math on the ACT. In fact, I’d argue that it’s considerably easier. The ACT could have questions about complex trigonometry, sequences, logarithms, and matrices. Each one of those concepts individually has lots of various components they could test. The sheer number of concepts you’ll need to practice to be ready for everything the ACT can throw at you makes it a more difficult test.
On top of that, you’re going to have to prepare for the Science section. The Science section on the ACT is as more about how well you can reason than it is about understanding scientific concepts. You might see a few questions that require specialized scientific knowledge, but most of the Science section is about understanding how to interpret data from a range of scientific experiments. To be ready for the ACT, you’re going to have to study significantly more topics than you will in preparing for the SAT.
It is about speed
The most important thing to know about the differences between the two tests is the number of questions and the amount of time you get.
The SAT gives you 180 minutes to answer 154 questions. The ACT gives you 175 minutes to answer 215 questions. It comes down to something as simple as that. The ACT gives you 5 fewer minutes to answer 60 more questions.
You can learn a lot of concepts to help you with the material on the test, but learning how to get faster is much more difficult, especially in the Reading section. Coaches often talk about how you can’t coach speed. A coach can help an athlete with their running form to get a little bit more out of their natural gifts, but to some degree, their speed is their speed. In a lot of ways that logic applies in getting faster at answering questions on the ACT.
Look closely at the Reading section. Many people think the Reading section on the ACT is easier. It’s true that the ACT has fewer questions that are going to require you to draw conclusions, which is going to make it easier. It’s also true that the ACT won’t have the “historical” passage that most students find to be difficult. But the passages on both tests are about the same length and, with the exception of the “historical” passage, about the same difficulty as the passages on the SAT. The passages have about the same number of questions: 10 or 11 per passage on the SAT and 10 questions per passage on the ACT.
It’s going to take most students 2 1/2 to 3 minutes to read these passages. It’s going to take them about the same amount of time to just read the questions regardless of the difficulty of the questions. On the ACT, students get about 8 minutes and 45 seconds to read and answer each section which means they get 5 to 6 minutes to answer and bubble the questions. It doesn’t do you any good if the questions are easier if you don’t have enough time to answer the questions.
How do you know which test to take?
The best way to know is to take one test of each. The great news is you don’t have to register for a test that is months away and then wait for the results to come back. You can download a copy of a practice SAT here (we recommend using Practice Test 7 for diagnostics) and download a copy of a practice ACT here. Complete each test using the time limits provided then compare the scores. You can use this page to compare your scores. If you have a score that is particularly better on one test than the other, go with that test. If the scores are about the same, we usually recommend the SAT because you’ll have fewer things to prepare to improve.
Then start preparing. You can use our test prep planning app to get a customized test prep plan. You can also check out our infographic on creating your own test prep plan.