Around this time of year, many students and parents are beginning the college prep process and familiarizing themselves with the ACT and SAT exams. U.S. colleges widely accepted these exams, prompting students to ask, “What’s the difference?” and “Which one should I take?” Both are nationally recognized standardized tests and a common admissions requirement for U.S. colleges and universities. Catering primarily to high school juniors and seniors, each test measures students’ proficiency in various academic categories such as reading comprehension, problem-solving, and other necessary skills for college success.   

Since all U.S. colleges and universities accept scores from either exam, there’s no advantage in taking one over the other. However, the content within the exams differs, resulting in better performances depending on a student’s skill set. Below we’ve provided a brief overview of the fundamental structural and logistical differences between the two.    

Time Per Question  

Worried about time crunches? Then you may prefer the SAT over the ACT. The SAT is overall a slightly longer test than the ACT due to the number of questions and time limits within corresponding sections. The SAT offers more time per question across all sections of the exam. Some of the most significant increases in time per question are the math and reading sections in the SAT, as each student is allotted nearly 30 seconds more per question in the math section than the ACT math section. So, if time management is a big concern, particularly in math, the SAT offers less stress-inducing time constraints than the ACT.   

Science Section  

Another significant difference between the two tests has to do with the science section. The ACT contains a section entirely devoted to science, whereas the SAT does not. The ACT’s science section contains 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes and constitutes one-fourth of the total ACT score. This section is focused primarily on scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses– so, if science is your strong suit, you may want to consider taking the ACT over the SAT.  

No Calculator Math Subsection 

Unlike the ACT, there is a “No Calculator” subsection for which students are prohibited from using a calculator for a certain amount of the math questions. Consisting of 20 questions, the No Calculator subsection is 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT. In contrast, the SAT also provides a “Math Calculator” section that is 55 minutes long, consisting of 38 questions. As a result, if you struggle to solve math quickly or solve math without a calculator, you may fare better on ACT Math than on SAT math.  

Evidence Support Reading Questions  

Are you good at pinpoint evidence in texts to support your answers to questions? If so, you may the SAT may be a better option for you. Evidence support questions are a significant part of the SAT reading section but absent from the reading section in the ACT. These questions build off the other questions before them and ask you to site-specific lines or paragraphs supporting your evidence for the previous question. Evidence questions can be tricky, especially if you’re unsure where you found your answer in the passage. If you’re not into the idea of related questions, consider trying the ACT instead; its reading questions are always separate from one another.  

Essay Content  

Another significant difference between the two exams is the essay content. For both the SAT and ACT, the essay component is optional. However, if you decide to partake in the essay section, what you write about for them differs entirely. For the SAT, you’ll be given a passage, which you must read and then analyze. This essay aims to dissect the author’s argument using evidence and reasoning– in other words; you won’t be giving your own opinion. 

However, for the ACT writing section, the goal is much different. For this essay, you’ll read a short passage about an issue, analyze it, gain different perspectives and insights, and give your own opinion on the issue here. Which essay will be easier for you depends on what you’re more comfortable with writing?  

With the SAT, you’ll need to have good reading comprehension skills to fully realize the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s argument. For the ACT, you’ll need to effectively compare different perspectives and issue and use your best judgment on the matter and support your reasoning with evidence.    

ACT vs. SAT: Which one to take? 

Students are increasingly taking both the SAT and the ACT. Changes made to the SAT in 2016 have made it easier than ever before to prep for both tests concurrently and earn a competitive score on both. The best way to decide which test is a better fit for you is by taking a full-length practice test for each type. Since the content, style, and time limits vary, you’ll likely find one that you prefer better over the other.  

Ready to determine which test is best for you? The Princeton Review offers free SAT and ACT practice testing online. Click the link to learn more!