ACT or SAT – Which should you take?

Students have to think about which to take - the ACT or SAT.

As a high school student, you may be wondering whether you should take the SAT or ACT or even both. More colleges are becoming test-optional, meaning taking one or the other is not required. However, many still require scores from these exams. According to US News, last year 1.35 million high schoolers took the ACT and 1.7 million took the SAT, which was more than the previous year.

So, they’re not going away quite yet! The College Board also announced that it’s introducing a digital SAT starting March 2024 in the United States.

For a more in depth look at the differences, read this post about the 5 main differences between the SAT and ACT. Then, come back here to finish making your decision!

Understanding the differences between the ACT and SAT

Before studying for one of these exams, it is important to understand the differences between the two tests. The ACT has four main sections total: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The ACT also has an optional Essay section where you get a prompt and write an essay. 

The SAT has an Evidence-Based Reading section, Writing and Language portion, and two Math sections.

Both tests are designed to assess a student’s college readiness and measure skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and analysis.

The ACT breakdown

The ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long. With the 10 minute break included, it lasts around 3 hours and 5 minutes. If you take the optional essay section, it clocks in at around 3 hours and 50 minutes.

The ACT sections break down like this:

1. English is 45 minutes
2. Math is 60 minutes
(10 minute break)
3. Reading is 35 minutes
4. Science is 35 minutes
(5 minute break if you’re staying for the essay)
5. Optional essay is 40 minutes

The SAT breakdown

The SAT is 3 hours long. With breaks it is 3 hours and 15 minutes total. The section timing is as follows:

1. Reading is 65-minutes
2. Writing and Language is 35-minutes
(10 minute break)
3. Math (no calculator) is 25-minutes
(5 minute break)
4. Math (calculator) is 55-minutes

Factors to consider when determining which to take

Different students tend to do better on one test over the other. These factors include your desired college majors, learning styles, and test-taking habits.

Your desired college major

The choice between the SAT and ACT depends on various factors, including your intended major and the specific requirements of the colleges to which you are applying. Here are some general guidelines for selecting the test based on your intended major.

College students have to decide between the ACT and SAT to take and send to colleges - which should you take?
Image by katemangostar on Freepik

Business major

Both the SAT and ACT cover the math and reading skills necessary for business-related majors, but the SAT may be a better fit if you are aiming for a highly selective program that places a heavy emphasis on critical reading and analytical skills.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) major

Both the SAT and ACT have math sections that cover algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and basic calculus, which are relevant for STEM majors. However, the ACT has a more straightforward math section that focuses on testing your problem-solving skills, while the SAT places greater emphasis on logic and critical thinking.

Therefore, if you are confident in your math skills, the ACT may be a better choice. If you prefer a more analytical approach to problem-solving, the SAT may be a better option.

According to College Evaluator and IPEDS admission data, more students that got into top Computer Science schools have submitted SAT scores than ACT scores. The av

Furthermore, the average SAT score is 1464 and the average ACT is 33. 

Visual and Performing Arts major

Similarly to the Computer Science major, College Evaluator and IPEDS admission data shows more students at Fine Arts colleges have submitted SAT scores than ACT scores. Furthermore, the average SAT score is 1430 and the average ACT is 32. 

While neither the SAT nor the ACT specifically tests for artistic abilities, many colleges require one of these tests for admission to their arts programs. In this case, it is best to check with the specific institution to determine which test is required or recommended.

Education major

Both the SAT and ACT cover the math, reading, and writing skills that are necessary for success in education majors. Additionally, for top Education programs, a similar amount of students submitted SAT and ACT scores last year and the average was a 33. So, you don’t benefit from taking one or the other in this case.

Social Sciences and Humanities major

Both the SAT and ACT are suitable for this category of liberal arts majors, as they both test the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that are necessary for success in these fields.

Again, looking at IPEDS data, more students in the best colleges for these types of majors submitted ACT scores than SAT scores. The average score was a 33.

If you score lower than the averages mentioned, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be automatically denied from these colleges. Your entire application is taken into account. However, it’s true that the average score is a benchmark you really should aim to hit in order to be considered.

Your learning style & test taking habits

Analytical and critical thinker

If you’re an analytical or critical thinker who notices patterns, the ACT may be a better choice because the Science section focuses on critical thinking and analyzing patterns. If you’re a creative thinker you may want to explore both tests to determine which one feels more aligned with your thinking style.

Your math skills

Both tests cover algebra, but the SAT is more algebra-heavy, while the ACT has a wider range of math topics, including more geometry and advanced math concepts.

If you’re strong in math, you may want to consider taking the SAT as the math section counts for half of the score. On the other hand, if you struggle with math, the ACT may be a better fit as it has a calculator for all sections, while the SAT has one section without a calculator.

Your skills in English and Reading

The SAT has a heavier focus on vocabulary, while the ACT has a heavier focus on grammar. If you’re a strong reader, you may do well on either test, but if you struggle with vocabulary or grammar, you may want to consider the test that aligns with your strengths.

Student studying for the ACT and SAT.
Image by storyset on Freepik

Your test taking speed

For students who tend to be slower test takers, the SAT may be a better choice compared to the ACT. The SAT allows for more time per question than the ACT. According to the College Board, you get 43% more time per question than the ACT!

Executive functioning challenges or learning difficulties

As you can see, both tests are very long and can be tiring! They’re extra difficult for students that struggle with executive functioning challenges or learning difficulties.

Luckily, there are options to apply for testing accommodations if you have ADHD or other learning challenges.

There are different levels of accommodations you can apply for based on your needs. For example, some options include 50% extended time during the exam, or 100% extended time over multiple days.

Read more about the different types of accommodations you can apply for and the process for how to apply to get a better idea what is the best fit for you. 

More tips for choosing the right test

Based on all the information above, you might have an idea already of which test you’d be better suited for. If you’re still not sure, here are more tips for choosing the right test. Plus, remember that you do have the option to take both!

Take practice tests

Taking practice tests is hands down the best way to determine which test is the best fit for you. You can take them on your own time.

There are free SAT practice tests and free ACT practice tests online. Plus, you could take an official proctored tests like the PSAT (practice SAT). Taking a few can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and which you’re more comfortable with.

Understand the test format

Understanding the test format is critical to doing well. Become familiar with the number of sections, time allotted per section, and scoring. As we’ve mentioned, the tests are around the same total time, but you do get more time per question on the SAT. Read more in depth about the differences in this blog post.

Plan accordingly

If you’re considering taking both tests, keep in mind that the tests have different formats and require different study approaches. Plan accordingly and make sure you have enough time to prepare for both. It’s best not to hop back and forth between tests. Study for one and take one, and then move on to the other.

The big picture

Choosing between the SAT and ACT can be a difficult decision. However, by understanding the differences between the two exams and considering your goals, learning and test-taking style, and skills in different subject areas, you’ll be able to come to a conclusion. Taking a practice exam for each can also solidify this decision.

Also, remember that your academic performance in classes shows more of your academic growth and abilities than these exams. Plus, schools also look at your extracurricular involvements and answers to their writing prompts. Study hard and do your best, but know that the SAT and ACT are just one piece of the puzzle.

You can also hire a great online tutor that can help you through the process. Working with a tutor can help you stay on top of studying, improve your section scores, and reach your goals. Check out Lessonpal’s community of affordable ACT tutors and SAT tutors to get started. Good luck!

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