SAT vs. ACT: Which Should I Take?

Preparing for college admission can be daunting, with standardized exams like the ACT and SAT posing a significant hurdle. Both tests have distinct requirements and potential benefits, including merit scholarships. 

Deciding between them is a complex task. Understanding their unique scoring systems and how they impact college admissions is crucial. The idea that one test suits liberal arts colleges while the other is better for technical universities is a common misconception. This resource provides insights and answers to frequently asked questions to help you make an informed choice about your college testing journey.

Standardized tests have long been a staple of the college admissions process in the United States. The SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and ACT (American College Testing) are two of the most well-known options for high school students aspiring to attend college. These tests are crucial in determining college admissions, scholarship eligibility, and sometimes course placement. With so much riding on your performance, it's essential to understand the differences between the SAT and ACT and determine the best fit for you. 

In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve deep into the SAT vs. ACT debate, exploring the structure of each test, scoring, and content and offering tips to help you make an informed decision.

Understanding the SAT

The SAT is a standardized test designed to assess a student's readiness for college and is widely accepted by colleges and universities across the United States. The SAT consists of four main sections:

  1. Reading

The Reading section of the SAT evaluates your ability to analyze written passages. You'll encounter a variety of texts, including fiction, non-fiction, historical documents, and social science articles. The questions assess your comprehension, analysis, and interpretation skills.

  1. Writing and Language

In this section, you'll be asked to revise and edit passages to improve their clarity, coherence, and effectiveness. This part of the SATs your grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure knowledge.

  1. Math

The Math section assesses your mathematical reasoning and problem-solving abilities. It covers algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis. The use of calculators is permitted for a portion of this section.

  1. Essay (Optional)

The SAT Essay is an optional component of the test. Some colleges and universities require it, while others do not. If you take the essay, you'll be given a passage to read and analyze. You'll need to assess the author's argument, use evidence from the text to support your points, and demonstrate practical writing skills.


The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600, combining test results from the Reading and Writing & Language sections (each scored out of 200-800) and the Math section (also scored out of 200-800). The SAT Essay is scored separately and does not contribute to the overall composite score. Scores are reported in 10-point increments.

Understanding the ACT

The ACT is another standardized test widely accepted by colleges and universities in the United States. It consists of four main sections plus an optional Writing section:

  1. English

The English section of the ACT evaluates your grammar, punctuation, and writing style. You'll be asked to correct errors in sentences and passages, as well as to improve the organization and clarity of written communication.

  1. Math

The Math section of the ACT assesses your mathematical skills in areas like algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Calculators are allowed for the entire Math section.

  1. Reading

Like the SAT Reading section, the ACT Reading section requires you to read and analyze passages from various content areas. You'll answer questions that test your comprehension and interpretation skills.

  1. Science

The Science section of the ACT assesses your ability to interpret and analyze data, charts, graphs, and scientific experiments. It doesn't test your knowledge of specific scientific facts but your ability to reason through scientific information.

  1. Writing (Optional)

The ACT Writing section, like the SAT Essay, is optional. It involves writing an essay in response to a prompt. Some colleges and universities use this section for admissions and placement purposes.


The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36 for each of the four mandatory sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science). Your overall ACT composite score is the average of these four section scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. If you take the optional Writing section, you'll receive a separate Writing score on a scale of 2 to 12, which is not included in the composite score.

Key Differences Between the SAT and ACT

Now that we've examined the structure and scoring of both tests let's delve deeper into the key differences between the SAT and ACT to help you make an informed decision:

Content Emphasis

The most significant difference between the SAT and ACT is their content emphasis. The SAT strongly emphasizes evidence-based reading and writing skills, with a significant portion of the test dedicated to reading comprehension and grammar. In contrast, the ACT includes a dedicated Science section with a slightly greater emphasis on mathematics. The ACT might suit you better if you excel in science and prefer a broader range of math topics.

Calculator Policy

The SAT allows calculator usage only for specific portions of the Math section. In contrast, the ACT permits calculator use throughout the entire Math section. The ACT might be better for you if you rely heavily on a calculator for math problems and calculations.

Essay/Writing Sections

Both tests offer optional essay or writing sections. However, there are differences in the prompts and how these sections are scored. If you need clarification on whether your chosen colleges require or prefer one over the other, it's essential to research their specific requirements.

Scoring Scales

The SAT uses a scale of 400 to 1600, combining the scores from the Reading/Writing and Math sections. The ACT uses a scoring scale of 1 to 36 for each of the four mandatory sections, with a separate score for the optional Writing section. Some students may find it easier to interpret their performance on the ACT, as the scale is more intuitive.

Time Allocation

The SAT and ACT both have strict time limits for each section. The SAT generally provides more time per question in the Reading and Writing sections, while the ACT has a slightly faster pace. Time management is crucial for both tests, so consider your ability to work efficiently under time constraints.

ACT Vs. SAT, which should I Take?

Whether to take the SAT or ACT is a pivotal choice for college-bound students. Both tests are widely accepted, but they have differences to consider. The SAT emphasizes evidence-based reading and writing, making it suitable for those with strong verbal skills. In contrast, the ACT includes a science section and slightly more advanced math, appealing to students who are confident in these areas. Consider your strengths, preferred testing pace, and the requirements of your target colleges. 

Research admission preferences, as some institutions favor one test over the other. While both exams have a similar cost and time commitment, practice tests and professional advice can help guide your decision. Choose the test that aligns with your strengths and maximizes your college application potential.


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