SAT vs ACT: Which one should YOU take?

Before I go ahead and answer this question, it’s important to know what exactly standardized testing aims to achieve. It is essentially a benchmark exam which allows college admissions officers to compare your performance to that of the kid across the country who wants the same seat in school that you covet. A ‘scaled’ score implies comparison, one that takes into account the national average as well as standard deviations (how spread out scores are from the average). This means that you don’t necessarily have to answer every question correctly to get the score you desire, just more than the kid next to you taking that same exam.

Both the SAT and the ACT were created to serve as a yardstick meant to measure reasoning ability. However, that’s where the similarities end. The structure of the tests give very telltale signs of just how each exam intends to measure a student’s reasoning ability (go to and for more information on both exams). For example, the English and Math sections of the ACT contain 75 questions to be answered in 45 minutes and 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes, respectively. This implies that the questions unto themselves are more straightforward, but you will have to answer a lot of them in a short amount of time should you choose to take the ACT.

The sections on the SAT, however, allow for more time spent on average for each question. The Reading section contains 52 questions to be answered in 65 minutes while each of the math sections are 20 questions long to be answered in 25 minutes and 38 questions to be answered in 55 minutes, respectively. You can deduce that each question on the SAT will require a little more work and effort to solve.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ACT is the ‘easier’ option. That is one of the biggest misconceptions of the test and it is a product of severe misinformation. In my work with high school students of various test-taking abilities, I’ve seen 90th percentile scorers on the SAT fail to break a 30 on the ACT. If you or your child has more of an affinity for figuring things out and like to think in-depth about WHY certain things happen, then the SAT is the exam for you. However, if you or your kid is more of a ‘memorizer’ or just isn’t that strong of a standardized test taker, it may be better for you to consider the ACT, given the more superficial nature of the questions on the ACT. The timing of the ACT will always be challenging but I’ve seen that it’s a little easier to coach speed in answering more straightforward questions than to coach the multi-tiered reasoning required to do well on the SAT. Having said that, with enough effort and proper coaching, you can see improvement on both tests.

It’s a big decision regardless of which exam you choose, so you may want to take a practice exam in both. Some of my students end up taking both. The concepts tested do have a lot of crossover after all. Whatever ends up happening, just make sure you’ve made an informed choice. Hope this helped with that. Happy reading!

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