ACT vs SAT: Which Test Do Colleges Prefer?

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High school students who are beginning their four-year college application journey will have to decide which test to take: the ACT or the SAT.

Both of these tests are nationally administered standardized tests that prospective colleges will use to evaluate your application and determine your preparedness for college level classes.

The ACT and the SAT are nearly identical when it comes to the material and the format. Both tests take 3 to 4 hours to complete and contain math sections, English sections, and sections on grammar and reading comprehension.

So which test is the right one for you? Keep reading to find out!

Comparing Your Options: ACT vs SAT

Let’s start by looking at these two tests side by side. Most college boards accept scores from either test, so you can choose the one that best fits you.

Here’s a quick list of the main differences:

  • The SAT does not have a science section. However, the “science” subject test in the ACT is very easy and has very little to do with science.
  • The optional essays between these tests are different. The SAT will ask you to evaluate a pre written argument, while the ACT will have you create your own argument and support it.
  • The ACT math section is completely multiple choice, while the SAT has 13 fill-in-the-blank math questions.
  • You are allowed a calculator on the ACT but you are only allowed to use a calculator for about half of the SAT math section. However, the “without calculator” portion of the SAT does not require difficult arithmetic.
  • The SAT is much less time intensive. This is the biggest differentiator between the two; You will have more time per question on the SAT, so some consider it to be the less intense test. On the other hand, the ACT requires you to move quickly through your questions.

If you want to know the details of the differences between the SAT and ACT, check out my thorough breakdown below!

How Long Does the Test Take? 3 hours and 35 minutes (this does not include the multiple breaks) 3 hours, 50 minutes (this does not include the multiple breaks)
How is the Exam Scored? Your composite score is an average of your total from 4 sections with multiple-choice questions. These sections are graded on a 1-36 scale; your final score will also be on a 1-36 scale. The writing test is optional and its score is determined on a 2-12 scale by two different graders. Your essay score is then incorporated into your final score. Your composite SAT score is a compilation of each of your section’s scores. The sections can be scored on a range of 200-800, making a 1600 a perfect score on the SAT. The essay is optional, and you can receive an extra 2-8 points added to your total score.
What is the Exam’s Format? English
Writing (Optional)
Writing and Language
Math (No Calculator)
Math with a Calculator
Optional Essay
Is There a Penalty for Wrong Answers? No No
The Reading Section You will find the following tested concepts in this section: Key Ideas and Details
Craft and Structure
Application of Knowledge and Ideas
You will find the following tested concepts in this section: Ability to find and use of Evidence
Define words in Context
Analysis skills in History/Social Studies and Science
The Math Section You will find the following tested concepts in this section: Number and Quantity
Statistics and Probability
Applying Essential Skills
You will find the following tested concepts in this section: Algebra
Problem Solving and Analysis of Data
Passport to Advanced Math
Additional Math Topics
The Science Section You will find the following tested concepts in this section: Interpretation of Data
Scientific Investigation
Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results
You will not find a specific science section on the SAT. However, throughout the other subject tests you will have to prove your skills with chart interpretations, infographic analysis, and exploration of other data relating to science topics. From these science related questions, a Science Insight Score is formed.
The English/Writing and Language Section Creation of Writing
Language and Use
Conventions of English
Optional Essay
Finding the Evidence
Define Words Within the Test
Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science
Optional Essay
The Essay Section You will have 40 minutes to craft a response to the provided topic. The topic will be a contemporary issue and you will have to create a clear argument that is supported with multiple examples. The score of this section is not included in your final composite score. It has a 40 minute testing time and provides a separate score. The optional essay’s topic presents conversations around contemporary issues and tests your ability to argue a point of view in a clear way, using specific examples. You will have 50 minutes to create an essay that demonstrates your writing skills as well as your ability to analyze a passage. Before writing, you must read a 750 word excerpt. From this passage, you can prove your writing abilities. The score on your essay is separate from your final composite score.

Picking the Right Test for You

If you want to have a top notch application that will impress a college admissions department, you are going to need high test scores.

In order to do this, you need to take the best test. But which is it?

Now that you know the specific differences between these two important tests, it’s time to figure out which one is the best for YOU.

Don’t even bother taking both tests; it’s just a waste of your study efforts. Focus on ONE test since you don’t get any extra benefit from taking both. Just make sure that the colleges you are applying to will accept the test you choose to take.

The first step in picking the right test for you is taking an ACT and SAT practice test. If you’re still in high school, your counselor should be helpful in this department. You can compare your initial scores to get a rough idea on which test you perform better on.

But if your scores are too close to decide, here are some tips for deciding between the ACT and SAT!

Pick the SAT if You…

  • Want to focus on as little science as possible.
  • Are confident with your ability to write excellent analytical essays.
  • Get panicked when facing tough time limits and/or struggle with pacing.
  • Have difficulty finding details while reading.
  • Hate the idea of not answering every question.
  • Are not confident with Geometry.

Pick the ACT if You…

  • Have a hard time explaining the reasoning for your correct answers.
  • Aren’t confident with your vocabulary.
  • Like having different topics tested in separate sections.
  • Want to use a calculator for math.
  • Have a firm understanding of experimental design.
  • Can eloquently argue your own opinion.

Choose Your Test and Crush It!


In order to make sure you have the best possible application for your desired school’s college board, you will need to decide which test to take. Hopefully, my breakdown provided you with enough guidance to make a confident decision and work your way toward a bachelor’s degree or greater!

Now it’s time for you to prepare for your test; don’t waste too much time picking which one is right for you. I suggest you check out some test dates for either the ACT or the SAT to give yourself enough time to prepare. It may not hurt to look up some effective test-taking strategies or reviews on ACT prep courses or SAT courses. Keep in mind that you may want to take your test multiple times until you get a score you are proud of.

Good luck!

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