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ACT or SAT? Which is Best for You?

taking the SAT

Knowing how the SAT and ACT are different will help you figure out which test is your best bet.

Preparing for and taking the SAT and ACT is a huge part of college admissions. These facts and recommendations will help you decide which test to focus on.

What Are the Differences Between the SAT and ACT?

Both the SAT and the ACT play the same role in the admissions process. Colleges use them to assess your readiness for college-level work, and most colleges don't prefer one test over the other. When the College Board released a redesigned SAT in 2016, the two tests became very similar. Both tests measure your ability to apply the knowledge and skills you've gained in high school. Both simulate the kind of reading, writing, math, and problem-solving you'll encounter in college. But there are some differences to consider:

  • The ACT has a science test. The 40-question ACT Science Test covers topics in biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and space science. You'll be asked to use scientific reasoning to interpret data and results, evaluate the design of experiments, and analyze and compare conflicting hypotheses. The SAT does not have a science test, just two science-related questions in the Reading Test.
  • The SAT contains "evidence questions." The SAT's Evidence Based Reading and Writing section will ask you to interpret and analyze evidence presented in a variety of ways, such as in reading passages and informational graphics. Some reading questions will ask you to find evidence in a passage that supports your answers to previous questions.
  • The ACT has more geometry. Up to a third of the math questions on the ACT involve geometry. The SAT's Math Test focuses mostly on algebra (linear equations and systems) and data analysis.
  • The SAT's math test isn't entirely multiple choice. While most of the SAT math questions let you select the correct answer from a list of options, about 20 percent require you to calculate the answer and record it on your answer sheet. The ACT math test is multiple choice.
  • The essays are different. The ACT essay will present three viewpoints on a topic and ask you to argue your opinion in relation to the others. The SAT essay asks you to analyze someone else's argument. The essay is optional on both the SAT and the ACT, but some colleges require it.

What These Differences Might Mean for You

Most testing experts say that if you are strong in science and math (especially geometry) and you can keep your cool under its slightly tighter time limit, you might do better on the ACT. If you are an analytical thinker who excels in English, you might do better on the SAT. But your success on one test over the other might also come down to your personal preferences for the types of questions you encounter.

So How Do You Decide Between the SAT and ACT?

  • Take some practice tests. Free practice tests are available on the College Board and ACT websites. Taking the PSAT as a sophomore or junior will give you a good idea of what to expect on the SAT. When you take the practice tests, pay attention to your comfort level with each test. Do you feel like you have enough time to answer all the questions, or do you feel rushed? Do you find the reading passages straightforward or confusing? Do you struggle with certain math problems and speed through others? Which essay did you enjoy writing more?
  • Sit for both tests. If you are still unsure after you've taken a few practice exams, sign up for both tests, sit for the official exams, and see how you do. If you perform significantly better on one, focus your study on that test and take it again if you want to try to improve your score.
  • Submit scores from both tests. If you do just about as well on the ACT as the SAT, consider submitting your scores from both tests. Some colleges will "superscore" your test results, which means they consider only your best scores from different sections of each test. Check with your prospective colleges to find out their test score policies.

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