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SAT vs. ACT – Which One Should You Take

by Model Teaching | November 15, 2019.

With the recent changes made to the SAT®, the ACT and SAT are now quite similar.  Despite this, there are still some major differences to consider.  Students who are getting started with the college admission process may be considering which test makes the most sense for them based on their individual skills and comfort level.  To help these students make this critical decision, we have assembled a list of factors every student should consider when deciding if they should take the ACT, SAT or both.  Use the following criteria to help you decide as you prepare for the college admission process.  Getting started on the right foot by choosing a test that works best for you, may make the difference between getting that scholarship or getting into your top-choice school.


Colleges Don’t Care Which One you Take

The ACT and the SAT are now both universally accepted tests used by almost all US-based 4 year colleges for academic admissions.  It used to be the case that the SAT was the test to take if you wanted to attend an elite east cost school, while the ACT was more common and accepted in the south, west and Midwest.  This is no longer the case.  Choosing to take the ACT or the SAT will have no impact on college admissions, only how well you perform as a percentile and in comparison to the other students taking the test.  Also, keep in mind colleges will typically choose the highest score if you decide to take both or each test multiple times.   Always check with your school’s admissions website to confirm their policy on multiple scores.

Take An ACT AND SAT Practice Test Under Timed, Test-Simulated Conditions and Compare Scores

Often students who start their test prep by taking an initial ACT or SAT practice test will do better on one or the other. This may provide a good benchmark to see how you naturally perform on each test and may help to get you started on the right foot. Also, keep in mind that certain students can dramatically improve their scores by mastering testing strategies in addition to studying the content. We have found that testing strategies can have a greater impact when taking the ACT vs. the SAT, however, with the SAT as any standardized test, testing strategies can make a huge difference in overall performance.

How Well Do You Perform on Logical Reasoning-Based Questions

The new reformatted SAT is much more similar to the ACT now, however, logical reasoning does play a larger role in the SAT vs. the ACT.  Students who are strong in this area should consider the SAT.

How Good Are You At Reading Data, Graphs and Charts

Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a science section.  However, it is important to note that the section does not require an advanced level of scientific content knowledge, rather focuses more on using information, data and hypothetical scientific results to deduce the correct answer.  Students who are good at reading graphs, data sets and interpreting the results of scientific experiments should do well on this section- more support for them to consider the ACT.

Using a Calculator

Both tests allow you to use a calculator, however, the SAT is more restrictive- only letting you use a calculator on certain parts of the math test.  The ACT allows you to use a calculator on all parts of the math section.  It is important to note that only certain types of calculators are allowed and students must bring their own- they are not provided.  We recommend you check with College Board or ACT.org to verify that your calculator is acceptable and allowed on each test.

Are You Running Out Of Time On The Test

The ACT, while now more similar to the SAT still provides overall less time per question.  On average for each section, students are forced to work through each problem faster on the ACT.

Here is a breakdown of how much time on average students have to work through each problem:

ACT Time Per Problem:

English  75 problems over 45 minutes:  36 seconds per English Problem
Math  60 problems over 60 minutes:  60 seconds per Math problem
Reading  40 problems over 35 minutes: 52.5 seconds per Reading question

SAT Time Per Problem:

Writing & Language Arts  44 problems over 35 minutes:  48 seconds per Writing & LA problem
Reading  52 problems over 65 minutes:  75 seconds per Reading problem
Math  58 problems over 80 minutes:  83 seconds per Math problem

Students who struggle with time management may tend to fair slightly better on the ACT over the SAT.  Students who are naturally good at time management, may have a slight edge over other ACT test takers, especially if they focus on time management techniques for standardized testing.

Never Leave Unanswered Questions on Either the ACT or SAT

Neither test deducts points for unanswered questions, which means if you run out of time always guess an answer!

Which Areas of Subject Content Are You Strongest and Weakest

In addition to taking a timed and simulated practice test for both the ACT and SAT, we also recommend getting a routine content diagnostic on your test results.  These types of diagnostic test will break down the content on the test, and evaluate which types of questions were correct vs. incorrect and produce a report on which areas should be the focus of your studying.  For example, you may fare well on algebraic relationships however, not as well on reading and interpreting data or word problems.  These types of diagnostics will let you know where to focus your studying and test prep for maximum results. Contact us for recommendations on free or low cost diagnostic tools.


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ACT Vs. SAT Decision Tool

Instructions: For each question, check “Agree” or “Disagree.” When Complete, add up the blue boxes where “agree” was checked (ACT score) then the green boxes where “agree” was checked (SAT score). Use the results to help you decide which test is best for you. Note: We always recommend in addition to using this tool, you take a timed practice test for each the SAT and ACT under simulated testing conditions to see which test fits your personal strengths.

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