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ACT vs SAT: Which Test Should I Take and Why?

April 03, 2023 :: Admissionado Team

High school is full of choices, such as which classes to take, which extracurricular activities to partake in, and which future schools to apply to.

Some of these choices will come naturally, while some choices will require more informed decisions. These choices will only intensify your junior and senior years as you begin to pursue your college applications. One of the large decisions you will make is which college entrance exam you should complete. Both tests cover the same topics and most colleges nowadays do not prefer one test over the other…so how do you choose?

Is the SAT or ACT easier?

Let’s get this question out of the way because we know you’re thinking it. We wish the answer were that simple! Alas, here we are. 

Simple answer: they’re both hard, period. They both require you to devote a lot of time and preparation. One isn’t inherently, objectively better or easier than the other. Sorry to break the news to you. I wish life were that easy too. 

With that said, there are certain reasons you may wish to focus on one test over the other. Some students perform better on one versus the other. That does NOT mean one is particularly easier than the other. It just means everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Both tests cover some overlapping skills and concepts, but they’re still different tests, and therefore, people perform differently on them. You COULD study for both…but why would you if you don’t really need to?

Before you choose which test to take, it’s important that you know the key differences between the two of them and then make your decision with these in mind.

Differences between the ACT and SAT

1) The reading sections

In 2016, the reading section of the SAT changed formatting to look more like the ACT; think longer passages and comprehension-based questions, as opposed to short questions that test memorization of words and sentence completion. Both tests now have passages paired with questions that test your general comprehension, word knowledge through context clues, and analytical skills.

One thing that sets the two tests apart is the SAT’s inclusion of chronologically placed questions, meaning that the questions follow the order of the text. If you are a chronological thinker, this may make the SAT reading section easier for you. Another difference is that the ACT is more about analyzing passages as a whole. If you are a big, conceptual thinker, the ACT questions may feel more natural for you to answer.

The SAT has a lot of evidence-support questions, which is not something that you’ll see in ACT Reading. These questions will ask you to point to specific lines or passages that act as “evidence” for your answer. Some students find these questions challenging as they require more analytical thinking and the answer choices can seem confusing.

2) The English / Language and writing sections

The focus on both tests now is on grammar and writing style, all presented in context. One difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the SAT will also include charts and graphs in the writing section. For those who are strong at analyzing text, but not as comfortable with text features, this may be an issue.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the SAT has about half as many questions on the writing / English section as the ACT, which might make it easier for students who get bogged down by long tests.

3) The math sections

One big difference that remains between the SAT and the ACT is that the SAT has a portion that does not allow calculators. While the “no calculator” section is comprised only of math you should be able to do in your head, this may still be difficult for those who struggle with mental math. The SAT also has some “grid-in” questions where students must provide their own original answer, rather than selecting from a predetermined set of potential answers. If you find multiple-choice questions confusing, this could be a benefit for you. 

The ACT math portion continues to cover more subjects, especially geometry and trigonometry, so if these are your strengths, you may be leaning toward this test. Geometry shows up a lot on the ACT (be warned) and you are not given the math formulas on the test like you are on the SAT so you have to memorize all the potential formulas before test day. 

Another important thing to note is that your scores in the math section accounts for a fourth of your overall score on the ACT…and counts for half of your total score on the SAT. That means that although the ACT might cover math concepts not on the SAT, performance on the SAT math section still matters. It’s not as simple as choosing the test that covers fewer math concepts if you’re not a math person.

4) The Science Section

The ACT contains a section for Science while the SAT does not. You will be asked to interpret and evaluation experimental data and hypotheses. You’re not required to know facts about science so don’t panic. The questions require you to be able to examine relationships between the information provided (which can be in graphs, tables, numbers or text) and the conclusions developed; and to use this information to make generalizations and predictions. If you’re a strong science student, you may enjoy this section.

5) Optional writing section

On the ACT, you have the option to complete the essay section. You have 40 minutes to read a short passage and write a response assessing the different viewpoints on the issue. The SAT does not offer an optional essay section. All this is optional, though…so this isn’t something you need to worry about. 

Should I take the SAT or ACT?

Neither the ACT nor SAT is necessarily easier or harder than the other, although one test may be simpler to prepare for based on your skillset. With different structures and focuses, both the ACT and SAT have sections that can play to your strengths—or to your weaknesses. If you aren’t sure which type of test you are stronger with, try taking a few practice tests first and see how you score. If you’re still unsure, you can take both (although we strongly discourage it for you only sanity). If you’re performing similarly on practice tests for both, choose the one that you enjoy taking the most (or dread taking the least). You can also consider working with a test prep tutor to help you determine where you’re most comfortable. Good luck!

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