What’s the Right Test to Take: SAT or ACT?

There is a big question many college bound high school students find themselves faced with: Do I take the ACT or the SAT? The answer to this question can be difficult as it depends on multiple factors.


When deciding which test to take, students have to know the important facts about the tests as well as what tests are required for the colleges or universities they plan to apply to. Most colleges and universities will accept either however some schools require that SAT subject tests be taken as well as the SAT or ACT exam.


The SAT was created by a group of American universities who wanted to have a universal way to know if students were ready for college. In 1901 the first Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT was administered. In 1959 the American College Test (ACT) emerged.


Before choosing which test to take its recommended students research the schools they plan to attend to see if there are preferences or additional admissions requirements.


Although the tests are viewed equally by most admissions directors at most colleges and universities, it is important to note that the two tests are very different and test you in different ways.


The ACT is a test that focuses more on the things that you’ve learned where the SAT is considered to be an aptitude test despite its renaming in 1990 to the Scholastic Assessment Test when scholars argued it was more than that.


The way that the test is scored is another difference between the ACT and SAT. The SAT consists of ten sections of reading, writing, and math that are all scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points. These scores tend to be looked at individually by college admissions directors.  National averages for the SAT are currently 1500 and 20-21 for the ACT. Anything under 15 (ACT)  or 1100(SAT) is considered below average.

The ACT tests on English, math, reading, and science. The ACT’s total or composite score is typically looked at by admissions directors instead of the individual section scores.  The ACT composite score is on a scale of 1-36. The ACT, unlike the SAT offers an optional writing test and is the only national college admission test to test student’s on science.


The length of time and central focus of the tests also differ. While the SAT places an emphasis on vocabulary and tends to have trickier phrasing of questions, the ACT focuses more on grammar and asks more questions in a less tricky manner.


The ACT consists of a total 215 questions that students must answer in the allotted two hours and fifty-five minutes (extra time is added for the optional essay). The SAT has 140 questions to be answered and an essay in three hours and forty-five minutes.


A deciding factor for students is the cost of the tests. The SAT cost $46 without a fee wavier while the ACT costs $29 without a wavier (not including the optional essay). Both tests are free if the student gets the appropriate wavier for each. Cholla students interested in taking either test who would like a fee wavier please go to the College and Career Center for more information.


Although it is not required, students can choose to take both the ACT and SAT. Experts have recommended against studying for both at the same time however as they are very different and studying for one may not help you pass the other.


A 2014 Kaplan survey of students who took the SAT and ACT found that 16% of students surveyed preferred the SAT. Ultimately the decision of which test to take is up to the student and depends on what school they plan to attend and what their preferences are.  Students looking for a shorter, cheaper test may prefer the ACT while students with large vocabulary and are confidant with taking a mandatory writing test, and are okay with taking a longer test may prefer the SAT.


The choice of which test to take or the decision to take both or neither must be made by the student. The only person who can choose which test is better for a student is the student themselves.  There are official study guides and courses available to help students prepare for either test and many of them are free online.

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