Deciding Whether to Take the SAT or ACT

By David Greenberg   No comments

Deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT? You’re not alone.

Getting ready to apply for college can be nerve-racking at best, terrifying at worst. Perhaps one of the most daunting obstacles between you and your dream school is the dreaded standardized test. There are two standardized tests that are accepted by almost every university: the SAT and the ACT. Choosing which of these two tests is right for your skills and study habits can increase your likelihood of scoring high enough for the top universities as well as make the standardized testing process much less stressful.

The first step in deciding which standardized test to take is checking the requirements for every school you are interested in. Although most schools will accept either test, a few schools will only accept one or the other, so this is something you need to check on before making a decision. Some top universities will require up to three SAT Subject Tests (SAT II) if you choose the SAT route. For the ACT, the test is offered in two versions: with writing and without. The only difference is an extra section requiring you to write an essay. Many top schools will require that you take the test with writing, which is something to check before signing up for your test.


The SAT and the ACT have a few organizational differences. The SAT tests math, reading, and English. This test consists of ten sections that are a mix of these three categories in a random order. The SAT always has one section that does not count towards your score. The ACT tests math, reading, English, and science. It consists of four sections that are always presented in the same order: 1.) English, 2.) Math, 3.) Reading, 4.) Science. The science section is essentially a reading comprehension section that requires basic knowledge of scientific vocabulary, experiment procedure, and understanding graphs and charts.


The SAT is an aptitude test, meaning that it is testing ability, rather than learned information.The ACT is more of an achievement test, meaning that it is testing information that must have been learned. An example of this difference is the math section of the two respective tests. The math sections on the SAT contain a formula sheet with every formula you could possibly need. The ACT has no formula sheet, so formulas need to be studied and memorized. This difference is reflected in the types of questions asked. The SAT math is much more likely to ask math questions that test logic, questions where you will be required to “figure out” what the question is asking. The ACT math is more likely to ask questions you would find on a math test at school, questions that become easy if you took the time to learn your trigonometry formulas.


Due to the differences between the two tests, it is beneficial to pick the test that will be the best fit for you. The ACT is a better pick for someone that has had a strong academic career in high school. If you have completed Algebra II and Trig, you are at least familiar with all of the math concepts on the ACT. If you have already taken Pre-Calculus or Calculus, than you are already adept at anything you will encounter on the ACT math. Similarly, if you have done well in science classes in high school, than you are already practiced in everything you will need to know for the ACT science section. If you have not taken a strong math and science course load, than the SAT will probably be a better option for you. To do well on the ACT, you need to have memorized math and science concepts and formulas, which is fairly easy if you have a strong background in math and science. If this is not the case, than the SAT is probably better for you, because you would waste time memorizing formulas for the ACT that could be better spent working on practice problems.


Whichever test you decide to take, there is no better way to prepare than taking practice tests. Take as many practice tests as you possibly can. This not only familiarizes you with the types of questions you will see on the test, but also prepares you for working under time limits. On both tests, the time constraints are difficult. Taking practice tests helps you to get faster at doing problems, so that you can finish more of the problems when you take the actual test. It may be wise to take practice tests of both the SAT and the ACT to see which one you do better on. Taking a real version of both of the tests is also not a bad idea. If you think you can do well on both, it looks good to take both tests.