ACT vs. SAT: Five Factors to Consider

Virtually no colleges prefer the ACT or the SAT. Preparing for and taking both tests is quite time-consuming and not necessarily productive. There are several reasons why you might prefer one test over the other:

  • your test-taking experience
  • general differences between the tests
  • your subject matter knowledge

To make the best decision, weigh the following factors according to their relative importance to you.

1. You did better on practice tests for the ACT or the SAT.

If you took the Pre-ACT and the PSAT (probably as a sophomore) or you took an ACT and an SAT under comparable conditions (as a sophomore or a junior) and got a significantly higher total percentile on one, you’re probably better suited to that test.

2. You feel more comfortable with one of the tests.

If you got similar total percentiles on the two tests but like one better, go with that test. If you have no experience with either test, at a minimum look at an example of each complete test to see which feels “friendlier.” If that doesn’t help you make a decision, take both practice tests under similar conditions.

3. You prefer to prep for the test that has better official materials.

The quality and availability of official materials differs substantially for the two tests. This can be a significant factor in how effectively you can prepare.

For the ACT, there is one test on their website and five in The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2020-2021 Edition. However, only three of these six tests are complete, officially administered tests, for which accurate scores and percentiles can be calculated. One of the tests is seriously outdated, especially the Reading and Science sections. The ACT site has sample test questions for all sections, including the essay, many of which are from previously administered tests.

For the SAT, eight official tests (six of which were officially administered) are available in The Official SAT Study Guide, 2021 Edition, and on the College Board website. You can link your College Board account, with your PSAT or SAT scores, to the Khan Academy website. The site offers comprehensive practice at different levels for all multiple-choice sections, based either on your test scores or diagnostic quizzes that result in practices at appropriate levels.

4. You’re a slow or average reader who has trouble finishing test sections.

If so, you’ll most likely prefer the SAT. On the ACT, you have fewer than 50 seconds per question while on the SAT, you have an average of 70 seconds per question—approximately 30% more time. In roughly the same amount of time, the ACT has 215 questions versus 154 on the SAT. If you’re a fast reader who has no difficulty finishing test sections, and you prefer the ACT, your choice is clear.

5. You’re more of a math/science person or more of an English/social studies person.

Consider your subject matter knowledge of math and grammar. The SAT places a greater emphasis on English Language Arts, while the ACT places a greater emphasis on Math and Science.

The Reading and English sections of the ACT make up only 53% of the questions while the Reading and Writing & Language sections of the SAT make up 62%. In addition, the ACT English and Reading sections are easier than the SAT Reading and Writing & Language sections.

The ACT features a separate Science section while the SAT does not. The SAT does, however, feature science passages in the Reading and Writing & Language sections.

If you’re stronger in math and science, you may favor the ACT. If you’re more of an English/social studies person, you might favor the SAT.