Should you take the SAT or the ACT?

Should you take the SAT or the ACT?

by Kate Brehm, Math/Science/Test Prep Specialist

High school students who have their eyes set on college commonly ask this question: Can both exams be used as entrance exams for universities around the United States?


Let’s do a quick comparison of what each test offers:

Test Length 3 hours

Optional 50-minute essay

2 hours 55 minutes

Optional 40-minute essay

Materials Provides math formulas None
Test Sections 3 sections + optional essay 4 sections + optional essay
Reading 65 minutes, 52 questions 35 minutes, 40 questions
English 35 minutes, 44 questions 45 minutes, 75 questions
Math 80 minutes, 58 questions

Some questions require generating your own answers. Calculators not allowed on one section.

60 minutes, 60 questions

All multiple choice.

Calculators allowed on all problems

Science No science sections 35 minutes, 40 questions

Focused on scientific reasoning, not preexisting knowledge


What might jump out to you here is the science section of the ACT. Now, before you jump to conclusions about your scientific abilities, you need to understand that this section requires little pre-existing scientific knowledge. It mostly challenges your ability to interpret data-tables and graphs. It is set up so you read passages and then interpret those passages to answer questions. This may mean that if you enjoy the reading tests on these exams, you may do well with the science portion.

Another thing that might catch your eye is the overall pacing of each exam. On average, you have less time per question on the ACT than you do on the SAT. This may mean that slower test takers will find more success with the SAT in general. If you think of yourself as particularly quick with answering questions, then the ACT may be for you.

Let’s talk about math. The SAT has two separate math sections: one that allows you to use your calculator, and the other that does not. Additionally, the SAT has a few questions where you need to provide your answers instead of having them be multiple-choice. Alternatively, the ACT is all multiple-choice in one long section.

All of these factors should be considered when deciding which test best represents you to admissions boards at universities. The best indicator out there though is practice testing. If you want to determine which test is for you, then you should sit down to take a practice exam of each. Practice tests are good indicators of how you will do on the real thing, and it will also help you determine if you get drastically better scores on one exam versus the other.