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Choosing a Standardized Test: ACT vs SAT

Every year, millions of high school students sharpen their no. 2 pencils, ready their calculators, and bubble in their answer choices to determine their fate for college admissions. Over the years, standardized tests have evolved to become one of the biggest challenges a high school student can face, yet it is a foundational component to any college application. Although there is a plethora of tips and tactics for standardized test preparation, a very important decision must be made first: should a student take the ACT or the SAT? Below, we explain the components of each test, highlight some of the key differences, and provide some strategies to choose the right exam.

ACT Overview

First, let’s take a look at the ACT. The ACT is designed to test the knowledge that a student acquired during school, meaning the questions are fairly straightforward. The ACT score is the average of each section score, which includes English, math, reading, and science sections. The best overall score you can achieve is a 36. Although the questions are more straightforward on the ACT, it is also known for its debilitating time pressure. The ACT also has a science section that is notably absent from the SAT. This science section tests a student’s ability to read and analyze scientific graphs and hypotheses, and it counts for ¼ of a student’s overall score. Additionally, the math section on the ACT is quite different from the SAT. The ACT tests certain mathematical concepts that are not present in the same quantity on the SAT. Geometry, matrices, logarithms, and trigonometry make up more than 30% of the ACT math section, but less than 10% on the SAT math section. Other than the differences in the science section and the math section, the time per question allotted on the ACT is drastically different from the SAT. SAT takers have more time per question on every section than ACT takers do. For example, the SAT gives 75 seconds per question on the reading section, but the ACT only allows for 53 seconds per question on the reading section. The math section is a similar story. The ACT allows 60 seconds per question, and the SAT allows 75 seconds per question on the non-calculator section and 87 seconds per question on the calculator section. Another important factor is the guessing probability on the math section. The ACT gives students five answer choices, while the SAT gives only four, meaning that you have a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer on the SAT and only a 20% chance on the ACT. Lastly, the goal of the essay section is slightly different on the ACT. The prompt asks the student to read a short passage based on two opposing sides of a debate. The student then has to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each argument and inject his or her own opinion. This type of essay is very different from the SAT, which asks the student to merely analyze an author’s rhetorical ability from a reading passage.

SAT Overview

Now, let’s take a look at the SAT. The SAT was completely redesigned in 2016, meaning that test prep materials are less plentiful. The format of the test includes the following sections: reading, writing & language, non-calculator math, and calculator math. The SAT is scored on a 1600-point scale and includes an optional essay, just like the ACT. The SAT uses reasoning-based questions. Unlike the ACT, the questions are not always straightforward. Some students complain about the test’s challenging vocabulary and the presence of “trick questions”. For example, the SAT reading questions often ask students to pinpoint evidence in the passage for a previous answer choice, which can be confusing and time-consuming. Although the vocabulary issues were mostly resolved during the 2016 revamp, the test can still confuse students who have lower verbal reasoning abilities. As discussed previously, the SAT does not have a science section and gives students more time per question than the ACT. However, the lack of a science section drastically changes the way the test is scored. Because the SAT has two math sections and no science section, math is a major component of the overall score. Math is only ¼ of the score on the ACT, but ½ of the score on the SAT. The math section also contains a calculator portion and a non-calculator portion, which can be difficult for students who rarely do math without a TI-84 in their hands. Students who are not confident in their ability to do math by hand under time constraints usually struggle on the SAT. On the other hand, the SAT does provide a fairly helpful formula sheet, unlike the ACT, and there are only four answer choices for multiple-choice questions instead of five. The SAT’s math-heavy focus can be a blessing or a curse, but students should know that there are a few grid-in answer choices on the SAT math section alongside the multiple-choice options. For students who like to guess and check or who do not like math whatsoever, this can present major problems. The key to the SAT is math, but the essay is slightly different as well. The essay prompt asks students to analyze a reading passage and evaluate the author’s argument. This is a typical prompt in high school English classes, meaning that students should be more comfortable with this type of analytical writing.

Choosing a Test

One of my former teachers had a poster on his wall that said, “The beginning of all knowledge is self-knowledge”. This piece of advice rings true for standardized tests. The first step in choosing the right standardized test is knowing what your strengths are. For example, if you excelled in geometry, prefer straightforward questions that you have covered in school, and have no issues with time pressure, then the ACT is probably right for you. If math is one of your best subjects, you have excellent verbal reasoning skills, and you like to take your time, then the SAT might be better. There are plenty of self-assessments online to aid in this process of self-discovery, but asking the right questions is the key. Another easy step is to take an official practice test for both the ACT and the SAT after the self-discovery process. The scores are important but try to write down how you felt during each exam to establish which one is more comfortable for you. Remember, each test is a snapshot that can be affected by many different variables that have nothing to do with academic ability. Maybe you were sick that day or the room was cold or someone behind you kept sniffling. One test score is not conclusive, but evaluating your level of comfort with the test material, the pace, and the wording of questions can help you make a final decision about which test is right for you.

Standardized tests can be stressful. Why not have a coach? Although we specialize in executive functioning skills and academic coaching, we have some excellent coaches who aced the ACT and the SAT. For more information about individualized coaching, please visit this page

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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