Let me tell you the most important you need to know about the ACT and SAT: Only one test is required! And I really mean that. Taking both tests does not particularly impress university admissions offices. And American universities do not have a preference for one exam over the other.
Understanding that you only need to take one test–the SAT or the ACT–is important for two reasons. First, it saves you the time and hassle of trying to take both exams. Second, once you realize these two exams are equally good in the eyes of universities, you are free to choose the test that’s best for you.
So which exam should you take? Let’s consider some of the differences.
ACT vs. SAT: The Most Important Difference Is Pacing
If you sample practice tests for both exams (such as this free online mock ACT, or one of the official College Board practice SATs), this difference will really jump out at you. The ACT gives you much less time per question, compared to the SAT.
Here are the numbers: For ACT English, you have a maximum of 36 seconds per question. But on SAT Writing and Language, the similar section on the SAT, you get a max of 47.7 seconds per question. Then, for ACT Reading and ACT Science, you get 52.5 seconds per question. In contrast, SAT Reading (which is similar to both Science and Reading on the ACT), gives you 75 seconds per question. Finally, for ACT Math, you have no more than 60 seconds per question. However, for the first SAT Math section (no calculator), you get a 75 seconds per question, and for the second SAT Math section (calculator allowed), you get a whopping 86 seconds per question.
So if pacing is a big challenge for you–as it is for many students–the ACT just might give you an advantage.
ACT vs. SAT: Other Potentially Important Differences
Pacing is the one really big, undeniable difference between the exams. But there are a number of other differences that are smaller, and in a sense more subjective. By “subjective,” I mean that it’s debatable just how important these other differences are.
One difference is in vocabulary. SAT Reading seems to have tougher vocabulary on average, compared to ACT Reading passages. But this is just an average. If you look at sample materials from both exams, you will be able to find some individual ACT and SAT passages that have the same level of vocabulary. Still, if vocab is something you’re worried about, you may be more comfortable with the ACT.
Another possible consideration is math difficulty. The ACT is slightly more difficult than the SAT on that front. ACT Math will generally have one or two more trig problems than SAT Math, although trig is on both tests. The ACT also has a logarithm math problem or two, while logarithms aren’t tested at all on the SAT. So if you’re not as “up” on your advanced math as you’d like to be, the SAT may be a little bit better for you. (Note, however, that the ACT does allow you to use a calculator for all math problems.)
Finally, consider the ACT Science section. On the surface, this looks like an important, glaring difference. An entire section and subject that you won’t find on the SAT. But if you take a closer look at ACT Science, you’re really dealing with science-focused reading comprehension. The actual science facts you need to know are minimal. To be sure, if you’re really science-averse, the SAT may be better. But if you’re primarily concerned about reading comprehension difficulty, ACT Science is arguably easier than most of the science-focused passages in SAT Reading.
ACT vs. SAT: So, which exam is best?
As you can see, there isn’t a clear answer to which of the two major college entrance exams is truly “the best.” But it is possible to figure out which exam is the best for you. Take the practice tests linked above, and compare the two experiences. And carefully consider the differences we’ve looked at today.
But wait, there’s more help with this decision. There’s a test to help you decide on your test! Answer the questions in this ACT. vs. SAT assessment tool. Taking it can really help you find your personal answer to the ACT vs. SAT question.
David Recine’s bio: David is an SAT and ACT expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau. He has been teaching K-12, university, and test prep classes since 2007, and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life.