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Test Prep: Choosing the ACT or SAT

By Brendan Conway updated on Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Under the gun, and feeling the need to make a decision about which tests to take: the ACT, the SAT, or both? Relax! The reality is that neither test is superior to the other. Here's some information that'll help you make your decision.

ACT vs. SAT

The decision of which one to take may be determined simply by whatever admission criteria is laid out by your school of choice. However, if the school doesn't specify which test it wants, making the "best" choice can be about your preference for test-taking.

Although there is no hard science that proves that the ACT or SAT is easier, you probably want to determine which test format is better suited to your strengths. Each test has a different structure and different emphases, and familiarity with their individual structures may help you sort out which is better suited to you.

Take a look at the following comparison of the ACT and SAT to help you decide.

Test preparation for the ACT

The ACT sports 4 trademark multiple-choice subject tests covering English, Math, Reading, and Science. These are designed to evaluate test-takers' overall educational development and their ability to complete college-level work. Students will have 2 hours and 55 minutes of dedicated test time to complete the subject tests, not including breaks.

As far as scoring goes, subject test scores (ranging from 1 to 36) are determined after throwing out any incorrect answers — only correct responses count! The 4 areas are then averaged together to come up with the overall, or composite, score.

The ACT also includes an optional 30-minute writing test designed to measure the student's skill in planning and writing a short essay. This segment is your chance to highlight your writing skills! If you opt to take it, the additional scores will be reported, along with comments about your essay. These scores are reported separately.

So, if writing is a weak area, you might want to take the ACT and skip the writing section, since it's currently optional (although some schools will require it, which is another element to keep in mind). If writing is your strength, having extra kudos passed on to your choice schools may benefit you.

If you want an idea of what the ACT will be like, check out our free ACT practice test.

Test preparation for the SAT

The SAT is designed to evaluate your general thinking and problem-solving abilities, as opposed to overall educational development like the ACT tests. The SAT kicks things off with a required 25-minute essay. This is the start to the Writing section, which test-takers complete in addition to the Critical Reading and Math sections. The SAT differs from the ACT in terms of the amount of time takers have to complete it (3 hours and 5 minutes) and the format in which takers must provide their answers.

Similar to the ACT, the SAT has multiple-choice areas, but it also has a part in the Math section where test-takers will be required to produce their answers — no chance of guessing from a set of choices here! And unlike the ACT, the SAT doles out a slight penalty for wrong answers on the multiple choice questions (but not on the student-produced ones).

When considering which test to take, keep in mind that both tests allot ample time for completion, but the SAT has fewer questions — 140 questions on the SAT compared to the 215 on the ACT. The SAT also focuses heavily on vocabulary, while the ACT hones in on grammar and punctuation.

To see what the SAT is like, check out the free SAT practice test available here at Peterson's.

SAT Subject Tests

The SAT also provides you with the chance to take Subject Tests. A few schools may require you to take some of these tests as additional requirements to your admission application. It's possible you won't need to take any, but you may want to consider it if you have strengths in particular areas. All of your scores from these additional tests will be reported, whether they were required or not.

If you're concerned that your scores on the required SAT sections may be less than stellar, consider registering for — and getting test prep in — additional Subject Tests in areas that can demonstrate your skills in specific subjects like English, history, mathematics, science, and various languages.

ACT or SAT: It all depends on you

In spite of their differences, neither test is more likely than the other to produce a great score for any given test-taker. In fact, the vast majority of students perform comparably on both tests.

You may not even need to think in terms of "ACT vs. SAT." If the colleges you're interested in accept scores from either test, you may want to consider taking both admissions tests. Each one tests you in a different way, so taking both will let you figure out on which test you score higher.

However, if you're short on time and money and want to put your efforts towards test prep for only one of the tests, your best bet is to take a few practice exams. There are free and low-cost practice exams available electronically and in-print. If you are starting early and considering the tests as a sophomore, you may still have time to take the PLAN, which is similar to a practice ACT, or the PSAT, which is a practice SAT. You can also check out Peterson's own practice tests for the ACT or for the SAT.

If you're still undecided about taking the ACT or SAT, you may feel more strongly about one or the other once you become even more familiar with the format of both. You can then judge what your test performance will be before heading off for the real thing. Here are some great articles on the basics of the ACT and the basics of the SAT.

About the Author

Brendan Conway is the Web Content Editor for Peterson's Interactive and is well-versed in the world of higher education and admissions. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, and has been working in admissions advice, test-prep advice, career planning advice, and similar fields for the majority of his career since graduation. Brendan endeavors to provide the most relevant, useful, and interesting information via Peterson's Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds. Brendan enjoys lexicological oddities and voraciously reading in his free time.

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