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Should You Take the SAT Test or the ACT Test?

One of the most important and common questions I get as a professional SAT and ACT prep tutor is: “Which test should I take - the SAT test or the ACT test?”

If you haven’t spent years studying the SAT and ACT tests (like I have), then it can be tough to tell the key differences unless you spend hours of time studying both tests.

Choosing between the SAT test or the ACT test isn’t always easy. We’ll start this article with a high-level overview of the most important differences between the SAT test and the ACT test. Then we’ll dive deeper into the details and small distinctions between the two tests.

By the end of this article you will have a much better idea which test is right for you. Let’s dive right in to the key differences between the SAT test and the ACT test!


Key Comparisons Between the SAT Test and ACT Test.

If you’re in a hurry, what are the key differences between the SAT and ACT tests?

Basically, the material on the SAT Test is a bit more difficult, but you also get more time to work through each question. The ACT Test is a bit simpler, but you have to move very quickly to finish each section.

The SAT Reading passages are harder, with more complex themes, and tougher vocabulary. If you’re not a strong reader, I’d recommend the ACT Test instead of the SAT Test.

The ACT Math section will cover more topics, but the SAT Math section will go deeper into challenging topics. Also note that the SAT Math test provides most of the formulas you need, but the ACT Math test does not provide formulas. You’ll need to memorize the key ACT Math formulas before test day arrives. Despite having easier questions, the ACT Math also has a more challenging time limit.

The ACT Test features a Science section, which actually has more in common with a Reading test than a Science test.

Luckily, the two tests have many similarities. They’re both designed for high school students who are applying to college.

The style of the “Grammar” sections of the SAT and ACT tests are nearly identical. And, the Essay sections of the SAT and ACT may feature different prompts, but in general, the Essay assignments are more similar than different.

Both tests are almost 4 hours long, and both are accepted by *all* U.S. colleges and universities.

To boil down the key differences between the SAT test and the ACT test:

  • The SAT and ACT tests are about 80% similar, 20% different.
  • The SAT is harder, but you get more time to work.
  • If you’re not a strong reader, take the ACT.
  • Either test will require a lot of preparatory study.

No matter which test you choose, you’re going to have to study. Don’t think you’re beating the system with your choice of test… most of the work is still ahead of you.

Now let’s go in-depth on more important differences between the SAT and ACT tests. By the end of this article you’ll be as well-informed as a professional tutor. You’ll be ready to make up your own mind about which test to take.


Reading Sections on the SAT Test and ACT Test.

The Reading sections present one of the biggest and most important differences between the SAT test and the ACT test. Your relative skill and confidence in Reading-based tests will help you decide whether to take the SAT Test or the ACT Test.

Key differences between the SAT Reading and the ACT Reading are:

  • The SAT Reading test is more deep reading and analysis.
  • The ACT Reading test is more surface reading and skimming for key details.
  • The ACT Reading requires a much faster pacing (faster speed).
  • The SAT Reading has greater complexity in passages, questions, and answer choices.
  • The ACT Reading section is a noticeably shorter reading test.
  • The SAT Reading has harder vocabulary words.

If you’re a strong, confident, and quick reader who’s used to dealing with difficult reading material, then go with the SAT Test. You’ll be able to show off your Reading skills with deep analysis and vocabulary skills.

If you’re not a confident reader, then take the ACT Test. It’s much more direct and “surface-level” reading.

Trust me, the ACT Reading will still be very challenging, and you’ll probably struggle to finish on timeBut, if you have the time to work through the questions carefully, you’ll be able to figure them out. And you’ll spare yourself the frustration of missing all 10 questions on an SAT Reading section because you didn’t understand anything from the reading passage.


Math Sections of the SAT Test and ACT Test.

As I said earlier, the ACT Math section will cover more topics, but the SAT Math section will go deeper into challenging topics. Therefore, I recommend the ACT test to kids who dislike Math class, and the SAT or ACT test for kids who love Math class.

See, ACT Math questions are usually more direct, but SAT Math questions are more confusing. ACT Math questions are usually 2-3 steps long, but SAT Math questions may be up to 5-7 steps long. On a hard ACT Math question, you might know where to start, but not how to finish. On a hard SAT Math question, you probably won’t have any idea where to start at first.

Although the material is slightly easier, the ACT Math section has a very short time limit. Few students are able to finish the entire ACT Math in time. However, the questions will be easier and faster throughout the section, and the ACT scoring system is designed for the fact that most students can’t finish it.

Both the SAT and ACT tests draw on the same basic Math material: Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. Both Math tests require very careful reading and close attention to details. And, both Math tests require a great deal of advance preparation - no matter which one you take.

The SAT Math test will provide most of the required formulas, but the ACT Math test does not provide any math formulas.

If you hate Math class, I’d recommend taking the *ACT* test. ACT Math is more direct, and easier to prepare for. You’ll feel less frustrated. Even though there’s still a lot to study for, you’ll at least feel like “you’re getting it” bit by bit.

On the other hand, if you love showing off your Math skills, then either the SAT or the ACT is a great choice. Both options will test your Math skills in different ways. Just test out some timed practice sections in the Official SAT Prep Book and the Official ACT Prep Book to get a feel for which test you prefer.


Why the ACT Science Section Stands Out.

The ACT Science section is completely unique, and may affect your decision of whether to take the SAT Test or the ACT Test.

The SAT Test does not have any section that corresponds to the ACT Science section. The closest things in the SAT test are the “Natural Science” passages in the SAT Reading test… but even then, the ACT Science section is a very different sort of assignment.

Many students fear the ACT Science section, but it’s actually quite easy to get a great score once you get the hang of it.

At the core, ACT Science is about skimming for key information, combined with careful, detail-focused reading.

Essentially, ACT Science is just another Reading section - but with more numbers, charts, graphs, and diagrams

The good news is, the ACT Science is not really about your Science skills, or your grades in Chemistry and Physics. It’s really a second reading test, so prepare accordingly.

For more tips on the ACT Science section, be sure to read this article!


Grammar Sections on the SAT and ACT Tests.

Good news - the Grammar and English sections of the SAT and ACT Tests are nearly identical.

Why? Well, mainly because the rules of English grammar do NOT change from test to test.

Also, the format and style of the grammar tests are very similar between the SAT and ACT tests. So, these two sections will feel very similar, and any test prep you do for one grammar test will definitely help with the other test.

When it comes to test prep, you can’t go wrong studying the essential rules of English grammar. No matter which test you take, your grammar skills will improve both your SAT and ACT test scores. Ultimately this will help you get into better colleges and scholarships.

Also, with better grammar skills, you’ll be a better writer. This will help with school grades, career goals, and personal expression!

Take some time today to develop your English grammar skills for higher SAT and ACT scores. It’s an efficient way to improve yourself and your test scores at the same time.


Comparing Essays: the SAT Essay vs. the ACT Essay.

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Both the SAT Test and the ACT Test currently include an “optional” Essay test. It’s not really optional, since many colleges require you to submit an essay score, and you won’t be able to go back later and just take the Essay by itself - you need to take the essay in one sitting with the entire SAT or ACT test for the score to officially count.

The SAT and ACT essays have many elements in common. Both require advance preparation, essay-planning skills and brainstorming, and a high level of focus at the end of the test, when everyone is already tired. Grammar, sentence structure, and word choice are all important to both the SAT Essay and the ACT Essay. The length of your essay is also important (longer essays get higher scores on both the SAT and the ACT).

The SAT Essay assignment takes just a bit longer. You will start with a provided reading assignment. The SAT Essay task is to analyze the reading assignment and any arguments the author is putting forth. On the SAT Essay, you don’t take your own perspective on the topic. Instead, you must demonstrate that you understood the reading assignment and highlight what makes it effective or ineffective.

The ACT Essay assignment is slightly shorter. You’ll start with a simple, controversial social issue that’s given as the main topic. The ACT will also give three distinctly different perspectives on the main topic. The ACT Essay task is to analyze, compare, and contrast the three perspectives. You’ll also explain and support your own response to the topic as a fourth perspective.

No matter which test you choose to take, the essay section is usually not of critical importance to your score. So, I recommend that you don’t really worry about the differences between the SAT Essay and the ACT Essay.

Choose your preferred test based on the Reading and Math sections… not the Essay sections. Then, once you know what test you’ll be taking, go ahead and set aside some practice time to prepare a great essay for your chosen test.


How to Choose the SAT Test or the ACT Test.

So, how exactly should you choose between taking the SAT Test or the ACT Test?

Well, hopefully the big-picture overview at the start of this article gave you some ideas.

For example, if you hate difficult reading passages, and never willingly spend your personal time with a book - then take the ACT, not the SAT.

On the other hand, if you feel confident in Reading and Math, but you do poorly with tough time-limits, then you should take the SAT, not the ACT.

The ACT Science section may seem like a deal-breaker or a major difference. But, once you spend a few hours practicing it, you’ll realize it’s just a numbers-focused Reading test with extra charts, graphs, and diagrams.

And, the rest of the distinctions between the SAT Test and ACT Test are mostly minor differences. Both tests will require a great deal of test prep. Both tests feature challenging and comprehensive Math sections. For both tests, you still need to know your English grammar, and you still have to write an essay.

If you want to compare the two tests personally, just get a copy each of the Official SAT Study Guide and the Official ACT Study Guide. Set aside a weekend to take a practice SAT on Saturday, and a practice ACT on Sunday. Compare your scores, and go with the test you feel better about and score better on!


Should You Prepare For Both the SAT Test and ACT Test?

Based on everything I’ve laid out here, you may be asking yourself “Should I just take both the SAT and the ACT tests?

The truth is, this approach can make a lot of sense. But only under certain circumstances; for example:

  • You have ambitious college goals and want the best possible test scores, even if it takes much more work.
  • You’re willing to put in nearly double the test-prep time to study for two separate tests.
  • You have time in your schedule to set aside prep time for both the SAT and the ACT.

But, the vast majority of high school students should not try to study for both the SAT test and the ACT test. One test is enough work already.

Don’t forget, these tests are huge. You could easily spend a full year preparing for just one of the two tests, and still feel like you weren’t completely ready.

Only the most-ambitious students should seriously consider preparing for both the SAT and ACT tests. Even then, it makes more sense to focus 80% of your effort on just one test. Don’t try to 50/50 and split efforts equally between both tests. Pick your favorite and focus 80% of your prep time on that test.


Choosing the SAT or the ACT Test: Conclusions and Review

If you’re currently asking yourself “Should I take the SAT Test or the ACT Test?” then you’re in the right place (mentally speaking).

Seriously - it’s good news that you’re thinking about this. Whether you’re a Senior or a Freshman, it’s never too late (or too early) to put some strategic thought into your test-prep plan. After all, your college and scholarship chances hang in the balance.

To make your decision between the SAT test and the ACT test, start by asking yourself about your reading habits, skill level, and confidence. If you love to read, the SAT test may be a great choice.

Then move on to your ability to handle time pressure. The ACT test will put you under more time pressure… but in return, the test material is slightly easier and more straightforward.

If the key points above have not made your decision for you, then there’s only one thing left to do. Pick up a copy of both the SAT book and the ACT book, and complete one full-length, timed practice test from each book. Compare your scores and your testing experience, then make your decision.

Because of how gigantic these tests are, most students should focus 100% of their effort on one test only. The tip-top of the academically ambitious may consider seriously taking both the SAT and ACT. Even these students, however, should focus 80% of their time and effort on the test they prefer.


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