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ACT vs. SAT: Which Test Should You Take?

Standardized testing remains a key part of the college admissions process. Many students and parents begin their admissions journey by comparing the SAT and the ACT. One of the most commonly asked questions for Insight Counselors is “which test is easier/better?”

The SAT and the ACT generally cover the same topics. Both ACT and SAT scores are used for college admissions decisions and awarding merit-based scholarships. Most colleges do not have a preference for which standardized test scores are submitted. Neither the SAT nor the ACT is harder than the other. The deciding factor is often your preference.

Before you dive in and pick one test over the other because all your friends are doing it, here is our detailed breakdown of both standardized tests. 

 

Insights into the ACT and the SAT

 

SAT

ACT

Purpose

 

Colleges use the SAT test scores for  admissions consideration, merit-based scholarships, and sometimes placement purposes

 

Colleges use the ACT test scores for  admissions consideration, merit-based scholarships, and sometimes placement purposes
Test Structure

Reading

Writing & Language 

Math (No-calculator section)

Math (Calculator allowed sections)

 

English

Math

Reading

Science

Essay (optional)

 

Length 3 hours

 

2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)

3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)

 

Test Breakdown

 

Reading

 – 52 questions, 65 minutes
 – 5 passages or pairs of passages (literature, historical documents, social sciences, and natural sciences)

Writing & Language

 – 44 questions, 35 minutes
 – Focus on grammar, vocabulary in contexts, writing and editing skills

Math (no-calculator)

 – 20 questions, 25 minutes
 – Topics cover Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Data Analysis

Math (calculator allowed)

 – 38 questions, 55 minutes
 – Same topics as no-calculator sections

 

English

 – 75 questions, 45 minutes
 – Focus on grammar, editing skills, and summarization

Math

 – 60 questions, 60 minutes
 – Topics cover Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Statistics

Reading

 – 40 questions, 35 minutes
 – 5 passages (humanities, social science, natural sciences, and literature)

Science

 – 40 questions, 35 minutes
 – Testing your critical thinking skills and ability to interpret data (NOT specific science knowledge)

 

Essay

 

None

 

 

40-minute optional essay testing your abilities to evaluate and analyze issues

 

Test Score System

 

The SAT test is scored on a scale of 400 – 1600

 

The ACT test is scored on a scale of 1 – 36
Test Dates

 

The SAT is typically offered on a Saturday in these months: March, May, June, August, October, November, and December

 

The ACT test is typically scheduled on a Saturday in these months: February, April, June, July, September, October, and December

 

Which should you focus on, the ACT or the SAT?

In our previous article, “Should You Be Taking Both the ACT and the SAT?”, Insight Senior College Admissions Counselor Zach Pava listed these three criteria:

Which test are you most comfortable with? 

Which test is the best fit from a timing perspective?

Which test can you score better on?

He also analyzed a few differences between the two standardized tests (summarized below)

 – The ACT tends to be more straightforward in its questions and presentation of material.

 – If you’re a student who is generally science-focused, and you enjoy reading, graphs, & data, the ACT may be a good fit for you.

 – The SAT allows students more time to spend on each question and therefore presents fewer timing challenges than the ACT. If you find time management to be a big obstacle, then you may want to consider the SAT.

 – The SAT contains one Math section in which no calculator is allowed. If you are not very confident with your computational skills, this may also be a point for consideration.

Compare your scores – Click here for the ACT – SAT Score Conversion Table.

However, the only way you would know for sure which test is more suitable for you is through experience. At Insight, we strongly encourage students who have not tried either test to take both for practice before making a decision. Doing this will expose you to the style and structure of both exams, and then we can establish which test you are more comfortable with in terms of content and timing, and ultimately which test youre likely to score better on.  From there, we can plan for when to take the exam, which is important because the SAT and ACT are offered on different dates and in some cases, different months throughout the year. We also want to establish a goal score for each student, as well as an end date when we want students to be finished with testing altogetherIdeally, you should be done before the start of your senior year, because once senior fall starts, your college applications truly will become a full-time class away from school, and you don’t want to have to give up valuable weekends preparing for these standardized tests.

 

Want to know which tests you should take? Contact us and schedule your full-length SAT and ACT practice tests today and see your score analysis!

 

Curious whether you should opt for test-optional? Check out our article: To Test, Or Not To Test? and see if your top choice colleges are in our List of Test Optional Colleges 2022 and Beyond

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What Are Insight Students & Parents saying?
  • I liked the structured method by which Zach approached the whole admission process. First, there was research into colleges to make a list, then a rigorous back and forth on the essays and finally meticulous approval on the final application. My son learned a lot from Zach and we are hoping he will apply these […]

  • Priya was absolutely amazing to work with! We are thrilled that our son got into his top choice for college at LMU for the undergraduate business program. We couldn’t have done this without Priya and Insight’s expert guidance and support.

  • Thank you so much for helping me formulate my thoughts into words and help me write my essays. I got into Ut Austin for biology – still waiting for the Honors decision. I also got into Drexel undergrad – still waiting for the BSMD decision.

  • I just wanted to thank you again for your help during the college admission process. My family and I have been scrambling to figure out the process for years, and especially coming from an immigrant family and being the first in my family to go to college in the US, there was a lot of […]

  • I really couldn’t have gotten to Harvard without you. In shock. Thank you x10000000000000! I have the best college counselor in the world!

  • I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out of your day to organize a meeting with me and help me in writing my summer program essays. Your feedback really helped my writing and me as a writer. 

  • I just got my SAT scores on Friday, and I am happy to let you know that I scored an 800 on both the Biology-M and Math II tests. Thank you so much for your help and constantly encouraging me. Also, please thank the rest of the Insight team for me for providing complimentary practice […]

  • Our ACT instructor methods were so helpful and wonderful to have.

  • Zach, thank you so much for helping me become a confident and successful writer

  • We were extremely happy throughout the process – got much more than what we invested in Insight counseling.

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