Which Standardized Test Should You Take – the SAT or ACT?

Over the years, there has been a lot of deliberation for college applicants on which standardized test they should take – the SAT or ACT. Prior to 1959, the only standardized test available for college entrance was the SAT. As universities increased their enrollment numbers and more students pursued higher education, the need for another test emerged.

The old rule was that if you were applying to a highly selective university, you would take the SAT. For many, the ACT was seen as a relatively “fairer” format due to its leniency in certain areas of scoring and structure. Some felt that the SAT presented obscure questions and a rigorous format that was hard for students to follow. Recently, the College Board redesigned the SAT to better align with high school curriculum. It has been said that the changes in the new SAT make the test much more appealing, similar to ACT.

Today, both SAT and ACT standardized tests are accepted by four-year universities. Neither test is valued more or less by universities. However, the two tests still maintain opposing distinctions, each containing its own set of guidelines.

We believe that understanding your personal testing style, and the advantages and disadvantages of each test, will help you decide which test you should take to improve your score. 

Application Timeline

Each test is available sporadically throughout per year; the new SAT is available 7 times a year, whereas the ACT is available 6 times a year. During your junior year of high school you should start to outline which test you want to take. You should do this roughly a year before your first important college admission and scholarship deadlines. For most students, regular decision application deadlines are in January and February of their senior year of high school. This means that students will want to take their last SAT or ACT by December of their senior year. For students applying in the early admission cycle, their last test will be in October of their senior year.

Both the SAT and ACT have pre-tests available to prepare students with a realistic test experience. Students will also want to take these practice tests into consideration when coordinating their test-taking timeline.

Test-Taking Skills

With the redesign of the SAT, there is a lot of overlap when it comes to what each exam tests. Both exams include a reading test, writing and language test (covering grammar usage, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.), math test and optional essay. The ACT does include one extra section on science, which covers interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving content.

When deciding between the two tests, consider how you perform as a test-taker. For example, if you believe a little extra time per question would help you move through the test better, then maybe the new SAT is a better fit for you. You will have 1 minute, 10 seconds per question on the SAT, versus the ACT’s 49 seconds per question. Alternatively, if you are planning to go into a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field, and you outshine your peers in science class, then the ACT would be a good opportunity for you to leverage your skills.

The best way to decide which test you are strongest in is to try them both. If you are concerned with the cost of taking each test, we suggest trying a practice test or taking advantage of the free resources each test has. This way you can sample each section to discover which test suits you best.

Review our infographic below for additional information comparing the two tests.

SAT vs ACT infographic

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