SAT vs. ACT: Which one should I take?

SAT vs. ACT: Which one should I take?

When it comes to applying for college, many students want to know: Is there an advantage to taking the SAT or the ACT?

Traditionally, the SAT has been more popular among students on the East Coast and West Coast, and the ACT has been more popular in the Midwest. In Illinois, however, all public high schools now give the SAT to every junior at no cost to the student, so if you want to take the ACT, you’ll have to seek out a separate testing site and pay the registration fee.

When the tests were first introduced, the SAT was more geared toward testing a student’s IQ, while the ACT focused on testing students’ knowledge of high school curricula. Today, however, the tests have evolved so that they’re both designed to test what students learn in school.

So how do you know which one would be better for you to take? Before making that decision, consider these basic differences between the SAT and the ACT.

Q: Do colleges have a preference for either the SAT or the ACT?
A: Most colleges don’t really care which score you submit, so that doesn’t necessarily need to be a factor when deciding which test to take. They understand both scores and will almost always accept either test.

Q: What are the differences between the SAT and the ACT?
A: The SAT has one section each for reading and writing/language, as well as two math sections and an optional essay. The ACT has English, math, reading and science reasoning sections and an optional essay. So one of the biggest differences is that the ACT has an entire section devoted to science (although the SAT does ask some science-related questions in its reading section).

The ACT is also a bit shorter (about five minutes shorter without the essay and a total of 15 minutes shorter with the essay). That means the SAT offers more time per question. So if you don’t deal well under a time crunch, you may be more comfortable with the SAT.

Q: Can you use a calculator on both tests?
Not exactly. The SAT has two parts to its math section: one where you can use a calculator and one where you can’t. The ACT allows a calculator for its entire math section.

Q: How are the English (writing/language) and reading sections different on the two tests?
The reading, writing and language concepts covered on both tests are almost identical. However, the SAT has more evidenced-based reading.

Q: How are the math sections different?
A: Although the SAT math sections have some pretty challenging questions, they are mainly focused on algebra, while the ACT puts a much bigger emphasis on geometry. The ACT also includes more trigonometry questions as well as questions on matrices and logarithms. So if you’re an ace at geometry and trigonometry, the ACT might be a better choice.

The SAT does provide a list of geometric formulas at the front of the test, so you don’t have to memorize them; the ACT does not.

However (and this is a big one), on the SAT, the math section counts for half of your score, whereas on the ACT it only counts for a fourth. A big factor to consider!

Q: Do the tests cost the same?
A: The ACT costs $46 without the essay or $62.50 with the essay. The SAT costs $46 without the essay and $60 with the essay.

Q: What if I’m still not sure which test is better for me?
The best way to tell which test is better for you is to take some practice tests. There are free full-length SAT and ACT tests online, so try each one to get a sense of the differences in content and format and learn which test suits you best.

Feel like you need some help preparing for the SAT or ACT? Sign up for our SAT/ACT Test Prep Workshop starting Jan. 16.