SAT vs ACT: Which One Should You Take?

Posted by Alan Zhang

July 22, 2019 at 8:00 AM

SAT ACT prepmedians Test prep


Parents and students start the college process by comparing the SAT and ACT tests. The SAT and ACT cover generally the same topics, and both scores are used for college admissions decisions and the awarding of merit based scholarships.

In the past, schools on the coasts generally gravitated towards the SAT while those in the midwest preferred the ACT. Now, however, the college application landscape has changed and schools have become increasingly flexible; both tests are now widely accepted across all US colleges.

Don’t let the question of SAT or ACT keep you up at night! Know the basics about each test, your strengths and weaknesses as a test taker, and focus on!

Comparing the SAT and ACT:

ACT includes a Science section, the SAT does not.

SAT includes one SAT Math Section where you may not use a calculator.

Aspect SAT ACT
Why Take It Colleges use SAT scores for admissions and merit-based scholarships. Colleges use ACT scores for admissions and merit-based scholarships.
Test Structure Reading, Writing & Language, Math, Essay (Optional) English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning, Essay (Optional)
Length 3 hours (without essay) / 3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay) 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay) / 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)
Reading 5 reading passages 4 reading passages
Science None 1 science section testing your critical thinking skills (not your specific science knowledge)
Math Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry and Data Analysis Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Probability & Statistics
Calculator Policy Some math questions don’t allow you to use a calculator. You can use a calculator on all math questions.
Essays Optional. The essay will test your comprehension of a source text. Optional. The essay will test how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues.
How It’s Scored Scored on a scale of 400–1600 Scored on a scale of 1–36

-from the Princeton Review

Here’s an interesting analogy comparing the two tests:

The ACT is like lifting a 5 pound weight ten times while the SAT feels like lifting 25 pound weights twice. Both are quite draining, but in different ways. The ACT is extremely fast paced while the SAT requires you to think more and deeply.

Important note: Be sure to look carefully at admission preferences and requirements to double check which of the tests your prospective college accepts.

According to the College Board, while both tests measure what you learned in high school, the SAT is a better indicator of skills you will actually need to succeed in college and beyond. Instead of focusing on how well you can recall information, the SAT emphasizes one’s ability to apply it in real world scenarios. This is why the SAT provides everyday math formulas while the ACT expects you to memorize them.

Test Format

Structure and Timing SAT ACT
Testing time 3 hours + 50 minute essay (optional) 2 hours 55 minutes + 40 minute essay (optional)
Structure 3 tests + optional essay 4 tests + optional writing test
Number of questions 154 215
Number of breaks 3 2
Time per question 1 minute, 10 seconds 49 seconds
Score range Composite 400–1600 (SAT Essay: reported in 3 dimensions, each 2–8) Composite 1–36 (writing domain scores: 2–12)
Test length and timing Reading Test: 65 minutes, 52 questions. Writing and Language Test: 35 minutes, 44 questions. Math Test: 80 minutes, 58 questions Reading Test: 35 minutes, 40 questions. English Test: 45 minutes, 75 questions. Math Test: 60 minutes, 60 questions. Science Test: 35 minutes, 40 questions

-from the College Board

Test Timing

With the SAT having a total of 154 multiple choice questions and the ACT having 215, timing is one of the most important aspects to consider when deciding between which test to take. Based on individual time windows, you have around 1 minute and 10 seconds per question on the SAT and 49 seconds per question on the ACT.

A little bit stressed out?

I feel you. Test taking is honestly one of the worst things about the college process in my experience. We love spending summertime huddled over practice tests and test prep books and watching everybody else have fun. Are you feeling this FOMO? Do you find yourself “reading” through grammar rules only to realize that you’ve actually just been looking at the words and not processing anything? It happens to the best of us. Want to crush the ACT or SAT in the next few weeks? We got you. Prepmedians teaches ACT and SAT test prep through entertaining and engaging ways with sketch comedy, music, rap, and more. We’ll get you through those boring summer study days in no time. Check us out today!

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Posted by Alan Zhang

Alan scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT in high school and is currently studying Economics at The University of Chicago. Interesting Fact #4: I went rock climbing for the first time a few days ago and it was amazing.