SAT or ACT: What’s the difference and which should you take?


One key component of college prep is taking the SAT, ACT, or both as required by colleges and universities. In most cases, soon-to-be college students take one or both of these tests prior to applying to schools and include their scores in their application packets. Obviously, the higher the score on either test(s), the higher the chance students have of being admitted to the schools of their choice.

Given that you’re reading this article, you must be ready to take this important step. Your question might be:

What’s the difference between the two tests, and which test should I take?

The differences between the two tests are relatively small, but sometimes significant enough to warrant taking one test over the other or trying your hand at both. Each test helps you gain admittance to schools and win merit-based scholarships.

The SAT and the ACT each test subjects in a slightly different order.

The order of subject testing for the SAT:

  • Reading
  • Writing and Language
  • Math
  • Essay (optional)

The order of subject testing for the ACT:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science Reasoning
  • Essay (optional)

While you might see these different orders of subject testing as insignificant, you might also be relieved to see math, for example, earlier or later in the test. Similarly, you might be enticed by the idea of testing your science reasoning, or you might be quite daunted by the prospect. Part of successful test-taking is approaching your test as calmly and confidently as possible. Which order of subjects might make you feel more relaxed? The answer to this question depends on which subjects you like, which you don’t like, and whether you prefer to work through challenging subjects earlier or later in the test.

Within the subjects tested on each test, there are further differences.

  • The SAT requires students to complete five reading passages, and the ACT requires students to complete four.
  • The SAT does not test science, but the ACT has a science section to test your critical thinking skills (note that it is not used to test your specific science knowledge).
  • Both the SAT and ACT test arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry, and trigonometry. However, the SAT tests data analysis, and the ACT tests probability and statistics.
  • You can use a calculator on all math questions for the ACT, but some math questions in the SAT do not allow you to use a calculator.
  • The optional essay in the SAT assesses your ability to comprehend a source text, and the optional essay in the ACT tests your ability to evaluate and analyze complex issues.

Otherwise, the content and test styles of the SAT and ACT are relatively similar, with just one additional difference: the SAT allots three hours to take the test (three hours and 50 minutes if you’re also writing the essay), and the ACT allots two hours and 55 minutes to take the test (three hours and 40 minutes if you’re also writing the essay). Given that the tests themselves contain a similar number of questions, you might make your decision based on whether or not you prefer to have more or less time to take a test. 

What else to consider when preparing to take the SAT, ACT, or both:

  • Do the colleges of your choice require you to take one test or the other? If so, and if you only want to take one test, take that one.
  • Many colleges will accept scores from either test as part of your application. If that’s the case, and you don’t have a preference based on the differences listed above, take a practice test of each and take the test on which you scored most highly.
  • If you have the time, mental space, and money, take both tests and submit both scores (if both are high) or your highest test score of the two.
  • If all of the deciding factors mentioned above leave you dazed and confused, flip a coin and take the test based on that result.

Now that you know more about the SAT and ACT, move forward with your research for finding your perfect school. Consider where you want to live and study, how much school will cost after scholarships and other forms of aid, what schools have the programs of your choice, and application deadlines and requirements. Good luck!