SAT vs. ACT: Which Should I Take?

When you start thinking about applying to college, you will need to strategize your high school course selections, develop your extra-curricular activities, and maintain your grades. And you will also have to take either the SAT or the ACT exam.

Contrary to what you might have heard, you do not need to take both the ACT and SAT; all colleges accept the results of both the SAT and ACT exams. However, choosing the one that suits your learning strengths could considerably boost your college admissions chances.

Pick the test that plays to your strengths.

To determine which test will offer you an opportunity to use more of your strengths (and avoid your weaker areas), you should take a practice test of both the ACT and SAT. Then compare your scores. If one score is considerably higher than the other, you should probably commit to taking the apparently easier test. However, if your scores on both the practice ACT and practice SAT fall in a similar range, before you commit to one or another, consider the following differences between the SAT and ACT:

The SAT offers you…

  • More time per question. If you have trouble with timed tests, the SAT might be the better test for you.
  • Less geometry. The SAT has about a third of the geometry questions that the ACT does. The ACT also includes basic trigonometry questions.
  • Fewer science questions. The SAT doesn’t ignore science; in fact, science concepts appear throughout the exam. But unlike the ACT, the SAT does not have a section dedicated to science. The ACT does.
  • Reading questions in chronological order. The questions on the SAT follow the order of the events in the passage. However, the ACT reading questions often appear in a random order and do not generally follow the order of the content of the passage read. As a result, the SAT reading questions are generally easier to understand and answer than the ACT reading questions.


 The ACT offers you…

  • Less challenging vocabulary: About half the SAT reading passages include words unfamiliar to many students. If you are not at your best when being asked to determine the meaning of words from context clues, you might want to consider the ACT. The SAT also has more vocabulary questions overall.
  • Less dense reading passages. The ACT generally picks reading selections from more contemporary literature than does the SAT. As a result, the sentence structure and cadence of the sentences in the ACT reading section is usually more familiar to the student than that found in many of the SAT reading passages.
  • Fewer evidence questions. The SAT assesses students’ ability to determine and understand evidence, i.e. supporting information in the read text. The ACT has many fewer evidence-based questions.
  • Subject matter separated into discrete sections. In other words, on the ACT, you will only find science questions in the science section. On the SAT, you will most likely be asked to read about science topics in the reading section and the writing section.
  • More science. The ACT has a discrete science section, and generally includes more science related test question than the SAT.
  • Calculator use throughout the exam. While the SAT prohibits use of calculators during one portion of the math section, the ACT allows you to use your calculator throughout the exam.


So before you commit to taking the ACT or SAT, learn which test will allow you to use more of your strengths and give you opportunities to avoid areas of relative weakness.


Want help deciding if you are an ACT student or a SAT student? Call me! I’m always ready to help you.


Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.