Should I Take the SAT or ACT? Or Both? And When?

Chase Yano
January 18, 2024
Stardardized Testing

As schools eliminate standardized testing requirements and implement test optional policies, many students are faced with a tough question: should I take the SAT or ACT? 

Although they seem interchangeable, the tests have key differences which can make one more advantageous to take. You should aim to take the test which best suits your strengths. Another key factor is to research the admissions policies thoroughly for every school on your target college list. The key is to identify this early, and then focus on mastering that specific test.

If you are in an area where only one test is offered, then just commit to the test which is available to you! At the end of the day, what matters most is the time and effort you put into getting comfortable with the material.

With that said, let’s break down how these tests differ by first comparing the sections which they share.

These are just a few examples of tips I give during ACT and SAT tutoring sessions. Want to work with me? Set up an appointment here. 

Comparing the ACT vs SAT Math Sections

The ACT contains a single 60 minute multiple-choice math section with 60 questions, where a calculator is permitted. On the other hand, the SAT has two math sections: a 25 minute test with 20 questions without a calculator followed by a 55 minute test with 38 questions with a calculator.

Additionally, the SAT tests contain a few “grid-in” free-response questions– five on the no-calc and eight on the calc. 

ACT MathSAT Math60 minutes
60 multiple choice questions80 minutes
58 questions
20 no-calculator questions, 5 of which are free-response
38 calculator questions, 8 of which are free response

As we can see, the SAT math has significantly more time and less questions, with 13 of these being grid-ins

For grid-in questions, you are expected to provide an answer without the choices you are accustomed to.

Furthermore, the content of each of the tests differs. The ACT math rewards speed and knowledge of upper level algebra and trigonometry, which rewards students who are strong in memorization.

Conversely, the SAT requires more abstract mathematical thought with less expectations for explicit content knowledge. To elaborate, SAT Math can sometimes resemble brain-teasers that have more tricks than ACT problems, which are less tricky but test harder material. In addition, the trickiness of the section is made more pronounced due to the inclusion of free-response questions and a no-calculator section.

Students who feel they have an intuitive understanding of math and like the mathematical brain-teasers should lean towards the SAT iteration. In contrast, if you prefer to hammer home fundamentals in order to answer less abstract questions about harder topics faster, you should go for the ACT here. 

Those who decide to go with the ACT as their test of choice should check out my blog covering tips and tricks for the ACT math section.

Reading in the ACT vs the SAT

Let’s go right ahead and compare the questions and timings of the SAT and ACT reading tests which assess one’s ability to quickly understand and answer questions about a passage.

ACT ReadingSAT Reading35 minutes
40 questions, all multiple choice65 minutes
52 questions, all multiple choice

The pattern continues; the ACT is a time crunch where you have less than a minute per question, while the SAT gives you a cool minute and fifteen seconds per question. Don’t let the numbers deceive you here.The reason the SAT reading gives you so much time is because it forces you to gain a deeper understanding of the passage compared to the ACT.

Let me illustrate the difference here. For students taking the ACT, I recommend going straight to the questions before reading the passage. For the SAT, however, I always advise students to take the time to read the passage before attempting the questions. A quick skim or read over the questions before reading the passage is fine, but just make sure you take the time to fully digest the passage.

Therefore, students who are good skimmers and quick readers will excel on the ACT, while those more accustomed to deep reading are going to do better on the SAT.

Need some extra help learning deciphering tricky ACT or SAT vocab and purpose questions? Set up an appointment to work with me here. 

Comparing English/Writing in the SAT vs the ACT

The English ACT section and the Writing SAT section both test grammatical and compositional skills. Let’s look at the time and question breakdown once again.

ACT EnglishSAT Writing60 minutes
75 questions35 minutes
44 questions

This time around, both tests are pretty time-sensitive, with each asking students to answer each question in under a minute. Once again, the SAT questions are more in-depth and the ACT questions are more rote (but much more numerous). Specifically, the SAT questions deal more with topics like structure and organization while ACT questions focus more on grammar. In 99% of cases, the ACT English is easier than the SAT writing. However, this seemingly clear advantage is weighed down by the final section we will discuss: the lone ACT science.

Again, my ACT test takers should take a look at my blog post which covers some tips for the ACT English section.

ACT and SAT Science Sections Compared

While we have covered all the SAT sections, we have yet to discuss the ACT science, the test’s most distinctive feature. This test, despite what the name suggests, doesn’t really require much knowledge of science. Rather, it is a test of your ability to quickly analyze graphs and tables.

ACT Science35 minutes
40 questions

As you might notice, it has the same time limit and number of questions as the reading tests. This is because you should think of the ACT science as an extension of the reading section. The same skills are rewarded: quick observations and inferences. We have compiled an awesome list of advice for ACT Science Tips.

The presence of this section in the ACT balances out the relative ease of the English section. At first, most will struggle with this section as it is so novel, but, with practice and proper techniques, one will grow in their abilities quickly.

The ACT Science is one of the trickiest standardized test sections there is, but, with guided practice, it is something you can master. Set up an appointment to work on this with one of our tutors here. 

How to Actually Decide Whether to Take the SAT, the ACT, or Both

After looking at the pros and cons of each section individually, you are probably still struck with your initial question: which test should I actually take? This leads me to our anticlimactic conclusion: you should try them both, regardless of initial impressions.

If you’ve already taken one of the tests, take a weekend to try out the other one. If you’ve taken neither, take the time to try out both. You can find official SAT practice tests here and official ACT tests here.

Make sure when you take these tests that you do them as close to actual testing conditions as possible. Use a scratch paper as an answer sheet, get the right calculator, time yourself, and try your best!

Don’t base your final decision on purely the score you achieve on each test; try to think about how comfortable you felt and try to decipher which test you think will lead you to the highest scores in the long run.

If you take both, and they go equally bad, then try a couple more. If still stuck, just pick one and stick with it because, as previously said, the time you put into each test will make the highest impact on your final outcome.

And, above all, it is important to remember that test scores don’t determine your worth or intelligence so make sure to be kind to yourself through the standardized testing grind.

For help with whichever test you choose, book a free consultation to work with an SAT or ACT tutor at Dewey Smart!

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