SAT or ACT: Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils


The SAT and the ACT: they are basically the same thing, right?…Not quite. Apart from the admissions essay, this is the part of the college application students typically dread most. The whole ordeal is a drudgery, a botheration, a dehumanizing anti-individual nuisance; but they are a necessary evil. What are the differences and how do you know which is best for you?

***Note: most of the material discussed will only be relevant for students graduating in 2016. The following year, the College Board will be adopting the New SAT, which will be much more like the ACT than the current SAT is.***

College Requirements

Almost all colleges accept either test. However, it is very important to check the required tests for every school you plan to apply to well in advance. In the majority of cases, schools will require applicants taking the ACT to take the optional essay portion. The current SAT includes a mandatory essay and writing portion. If you are hoping to apply to any of the Ivy Leagues or other prestigious private schools, be aware that they will likely require two SAT II Subject Tests in addition to the SAT (Trust me, they aren’t quite as scary as they sound!).

The Structure

  • SAT

The SAT consists of ten sections: six 25 minute sections, three 20 minute sections, a 25 minute essay, and one 10 minute section. The essay is always the first section, but the order in the rest of the sections varies from year to year. The two 20 minute sections and the 10 minute section always come last.

  • ACT

The ACT’s structure is more straight-forward than that of the SAT. It consists of four sections and an optional essay: a 45 minute English section, a 60 minute Math section, and 35 minute Reading and Science sections. The ACT essay is always the last portion, so people who are not taking the essay portion can leave.

  • Basically,

If you don’t like to switch from one subject to another in quick succession, avoid the SAT like a terribly large spider. However, if you would like to write the essay first to get it over with quickly, and you like to take frequent breaks when working, the SAT may be a better option.


The Material

Both Tests include Mathematics, Reading, and Writing or English portions; additionally, the ACT includes a Science portion. Let’s consider the differences one subject at a time.

  • Mathematics

The ACT tests a wider range of mathematic concepts, including higher level concepts such as trigonometry and logarithms; however, the ACT uses less wordy questions than the SAT. Rather than testing your ability to decode a question, the ACT will test your understanding of specific concepts and memorization of formulas. *The ACT will not give you a formula sheet.*

The SAT is a test better suited for riddle-lovers. Its math questions often read like puzzles, and they test your ability to strategically approach and solve a problem instead of pure mathematic memorization or understanding. The SAT math section includes fewer topics, but some of its topics, such as probability, will require more critical thinking skills.

  • Reading

The SAT is notorious for its vocabulary portion. The ACT also tests vocabulary, but it does not ask students to consider words as complex as those found on the SAT. If you, like me, have a touch of the philologist (one who studies or loves language) in you and are made curious rather than terrified by words like “prestidigitation”, then the SAT has the vocab section for you.

In questions about long reading passages, the ACT is more likely to ask you questions about details in the text without providing line numbers, while the SAT will give line numbers corresponding to the lines the questions pertains to.

  • Writing

Both the SAT and the ACT ask students to correct grammatical or structural mistakes in long paragraphs, but the SAT also uses questions about isolated sentences. As for the essay, the ACT gives students 5 more minutes to write than the SAT does. ACT prompts generally ask students to present an argument in response to a social issue (such as school dress codes or the raising of the driving age), and SAT prompts typically ask students to take a point of view on a written snippet from any given area of study and defend that position with reasoning and strong examples.

  • Science

Only the ACT has a science portion—so if you plan to study engineering or the sciences in college, taking the ACT is common sense. Good news for those of non-scientific mind: the questions often ask more on your ability read graphs than of your actual technical knowledge! Of course, if your know all about Le Chatelier’s Principle, you will be less likely to panic if it appears in a question about a data set, but you will only need understanding of basic concepts and some skill with experimental data and research.

In Sum

In my mind, the SAT is, generally, a better fit for the verbally inclined, while the ACT is, generally a better fit for the technically and mathematically inclined. But you should still the factors of time, organization, and specific college requirements in making your decision. Keep an eye on the horizon for my standardized test preparation tips and resources!

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