How to find which test I should take? SAT or ACT – the guidance from the expert

SAT vs. ACT:

Which test should I take?

The SAT is now given to all juniors in Illinois public schools. The ISBE (Illinois State Board of Education) switched the official state test from ACT to SAT, but with little guidance and no state funding, leaving many schools and families with uncertainties in the transition.

Many districts opted to offer both SAT and ACT for a couple of years to make the transition smoother for students, while others made a hard push for the SAT. in the midst of the changes, current high school students and parents are often left with inaccurate information, adding to the anxieties of college application process.

What will this all mean for current high school students and parents? How will one know which test is the best fit for him or her? Let us guide you through the changes and how it impacts your options.

Which test is available to whom?

First of all, both SAT and ACT are available to any student in the United States, and both SAT and ACT are accepted by all colleges and universities in the United States for admissions. Although traditionally SAT was accepted in the East & West Coasts, while ACT was more prevalent in the Midwest, since a decade ago, either SAT or ACT are now accepted in all colleges. Colleges use a concordance table to convert between the two tests, so students can take EITHER test.

We have found that about a third of the students “naturally” do better on the SAT, another third do better on the ACT, and the rest third do equally well on either test. Even though schools will increasingly be encouraging their students to take the SAT tests, since their own performance measurements now depend on how the students perform on the SAT Test, students and parents should still consider which test is a better personal fit for them and prepare well for one of the tests.

Let’s look at the two tests in more detail.

What are the differences?

Scoring differences

ACT

  • No penalty for wrong answers
  • Scoring is out of 36
    • 36 English
    • 36 Math
    • 36 Reading
    • 36 Science
  • Optional Essay scored separately (out of 12) or as combined English-Writing (out of 36)
  • 4 answer choices for multiple choice questions (except for math, which has 5 answer choices)

SAT

  • No penalty for wrong answers
  • Score is out of 1600
    • 800 for Math
    • 800 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
  • There is no “Science” test as ACT, but there will be similar data analysis questions embedded across the other tests
  • Optional Essay will be scored separately
  • 4 answer choices for multiple choice questions
  • One of the two Math sections will be a “No Calculator” section

Content and time

ACT

  • 1 English test (45 minutes)
  • 1 Math test (60 minutes)
  • 1 Reading test (35 minutes)
  • 1 Science test (35 minutes)
  • 1 Writing test (30 minutes, optional essay)

SAT

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
    • 65 minute Reading section
    • 35 minute Language and Writing section
  • Math
    • 55-minute section with calculator
    • 25-minute section without calculator
  • Essay (optional) – 50 minutes

Average time allotted per question (in seconds)

ACT

  • 36.0 English/Grammar
  • 52.5 Reading
  • 60.0 Math
  • 52.5 Science

Revised SAT

  • 47.7 English/Grammar
  • 75.0 Reading
  • 84.2 Math

Focus of the tests

ACT

  • ACT tests more for the knowledge of what the student has learned in high school
  • ACT Math test covers more advanced topics with emphasis in Geometry and some Trigonometry and Algebra Topics as well; however, the questions tend to be more straight forward
  • Less time per question is given for more straight-forward reasoning questions

Revised SAT

  • Revised SAT will align closely with the Common Core State Standards, such as:
    • Problem-solving & data analysis
    • Evidence-based reading and writing
    • Expression of ideas
  • The SAT math has fewer advanced topics in Geometry/SAT 2/Trigonometry; however, it has more emphasis on the depth of understanding of Algebra, and the questions tend to require more critical thinking
  • Even more time per question is given to think through the more difficult reasoning questions

Which test is a better fit?

ACT has traditionally been a test of knowledge, while SAT a test of reason. Therefore, ACT has a more fast-paced, “know-it-or-not” type of questions, while SAT is more like an “IQ test” built on top of the content they assume you know. The revised SAT seem to focus even more on the higher-level thinking and deeper understanding of its alignment with the Common Core standards, but it gives you more time.

Students who have had a strong foundation in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and analytical skills who are good at “figuring things out” will tend to do better on the SAT, while ACT tends to be a better fit for students that prefer a more straight-forward, knowledge-based type of questions and don’t mind the fast-paced test. This distinction, it seems, will be even more pronounced with the introduction of the revised SAT.

For high-performing students who are already in the top 3-5 percentile in the nation may have a good chance of qualifying for the National Merit Scholarships with some preparation. For these students, preparing in advance, during the summer between their Sophomore and Junior years, will be most beneficial. For these students, we wound encourage choosing the SAT (and PSAT) test over the ACT test.

Where can I get help?

More Than SAT has been a leading expert in test prep for nearly two decades, and we have gone through many transitions and changes on various standardized tests. We can help families and students navigate through the different options and prepare them well for any tests:

  • Preparations for the ACT will be available many times throughout the year, with our classes aligned with the national testing schedules or with our one-on-one tutoring available at your convenience.
  • Preparations for the SAT is available throughout the year, in preparation for the SAT tests offered throughout the year.
  • Preparations for the PSAT/NMSQT is also available during the summer break season in preparation for the test offered in October.
  • We offer
    • Summer classes
    • One-on-one tutoring
    • Face-to-face and online (live) options for one-on-one tutoring
Contact Us

We are here to help. Please email with your questions and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text.