SAT or ACT? Which Test Will Make You Stand Out?


Is the ACT or SAT easier? Which test do colleges prefer? I hear these questions all the time from teens who can’t decide if they should take the SAT or the ACT.

Sure, it was easy when your parents were applying to schools; the SAT was mostly taken by students on the west and east coasts while those in the middle and south of the country went with the ACT.

But those times are old news. Now almost every college accepts both and they don’t weigh one as more important than the other.

The only thing they care about is your score.

Here’s the bold truth: All top-tier schools have a minimum threshold for ACT and SAT test scores. This is the first—and biggest—hurdle you’ll have to jump over if you want to get into a selective school.

Admissions committees will either move your application forward if you hit that magic number, or they’ll toss you in the pile of maybes. That’s why it’s super important to choose the right test for YOU.

This is the time to impress colleges with your academic abilities.

Today we’re going to find out which test will show off your strengths instead of highlighting your weaknesses.

When the SAT is Right for You

If you already took the PSAT, you know that the SAT questions come off as intentionally confusing. But once you understand what the question is actually asking, they’re pretty easy to get correct.

Here’s how to tell if the SAT is right for you:

Timed Tests are Your Nemesis

Though it’s still a timed test, the SAT has fewer questions than the ACT. Plus, you also get more time per question.

You’ll have approximately:

  • 48 seconds per Writing and Language question
  • 83 seconds per Math question
  • 75 seconds per Reading question

That’s an extra 12 seconds per English question, 23 seconds for each math question, and over 22 seconds for every reading question compared to the ACT.

They may not sound like much, but these seconds count when you need to process a difficult question. Take out your stopwatch and see what 23 seconds really feels like to understand this perk.

You’d Rather Critique an Argument than Prove One

The SAT essay is a lot like the essays you write in your AP classes.

You’ll be given a passage to read and then you’ll need to analyze the writer’s argument by explaining how s/he supported his/her stance.

You will not be writing from an opinion based viewpoint (I believe that…), but from an academic perspective (The author shows that…), which is closer to the papers you’ll be writing in college.

You’re Not that Into Geometry or Trigonometry

Over half of the SAT math section is algebra-based. You’ll also have loads of questions about ratios, percentages, and finding data from graphs and charts. If these topics are your sweet spot, you're in luck with the SAT.

If you’re not crazy about geometry or trig, you’ll be happy to know there’s only 3 multiple choice questions and 3 grid-ins about these fields of math on the SAT.

You’re Comfortable Doing Simple Math in Your Head

There’s one math section on the SAT that you’re not allowed to use a calculator for. This typically freaks teens out if they’re not confident in their math skills, but it’s so not a big deal.

You don’t need a calculator to solve ANY question in this section. You can literally answer all of them by using a piece of scrap paper or solving for the answer in your head.

You Like Big Books and You Cannot Lie

The SAT has always been the place to show off your extensive lexicon, but gone are the days of strictly studying hard vocab words. With more emphasis on understanding difficult words in context, the SAT passages are slightly tougher—and more sophisticated—than the ACT reading passages. But, you also get almost 50% more time to answer the accompanying questions.

The SAT tests punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure, just like the ACT does. However, there are more questions about rhetoric and the author's style on the SAT.

AP English students who are used to discussing and dissecting works of literature should feel right at home.

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Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 12.50.19 PM

When You Should Go For the ACT

If you’d rather devote time to figuring out an answer instead of figuring out the question, the straightforward nature of the ACT is better suited for you.

Here are some other telltale signs you should take the ACT:

You Work Fast and Move Past Difficult Questions

[Tweet "Though both tests are timed, you have to work like a speed machine when you take the ACT."]

You’ll have approximately:

  • 36 seconds per English question
  • 60 seconds per Math question
  • 52.5 seconds per Reading question

Teens who do well on the ACT are FAST and FOCUSED.

A big part of studying for the ACT is learning when to skip a question (and go back to it if you have time).

If you spend too long on one question and get it wrong, you’ll have squandered your opportunity to answer five other questions you may have known immediately.

Your Reading Skills are Better than Your Vocabulary

The ACT reading passages are generally considered easier since they’re more straightforward than SAT passages. While that may sound simple enough, remember, you have much less time to answer each one. If your quick reading and comprehension skills are on fleek, the ACT will make you shine where others struggle.

Do these statements sound like you?

  • I like reading nonfiction (newspapers, blogs, magazines, etc.)
  • My friends say I read faster than they do
  • I can spot a grammatical error a mile away
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Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 12.50.28 PM

If you’re a quick reader with a sharp eye for grammatical detail, the ACT will play to your skills. The ACT has a much heavier grammar slant than the SAT does.

The ACT still has questions about the author’s style and their message, just not as many as the SAT.So the ACT will be a good choice for you if you’re better at determining why something is written incorrectly than you are at figuring out what the author was trying to convey.

You Enjoy Visual Data

Can you interpret data from infographics, charts, graphs, and experiment passages better than understanding Shakespeare? If so, you’ll knock the ACT Science section out of the park.

Don’t be intimidated by this section’s official name—though it’s called the “science” section,you literally don’t need to know anything about biology or physics, or any other science for that matter. You just need to know how to use the information provided in the charts and graphs to answer the question as FAST as you can.

Now, you’ll come across visual data in charts and graphs on all sections of the SAT—yes, even the Writing and Reading sections!—which means you need a basic understanding of how to interpret this kind of data anyway.

But answering a few of these on the SAT is a lot different from dealing with a whole section of visual data on the ACT.So if you can only handle charts, graphs, and tables in small doses, stick with the SAT. But if you like reading data visually, you’ll have a leg up on the ACT.

You Prefer Proving Your Own Argument

For the ACT essay, you’ll be given three perspectives about one issue. Then, you’ll have to write an essay explaining your stance based on the evidence from the passages.

Not only will you have to critique those passages for their credibility, but then you have to make a solid argument of your own.

You Like Advanced Math

The ACT covers a wider, more advanced range of math topics that the SAT barely touches on (if at all). Geometry and trig will account for a third of all the math questions on the ACT.

Although you’re allowed to use a calculator for the entire math section, you won’t be given a reference sheet of formulas so you’ll need to memorize them all.

The ACT math section is also all multiple choice, so you don’t ever have to worry about grid-in answers.

As you can see, the SAT and the ACT both test very similar material so you technicallycan study simultaneously for both, though I don’t really advise it..

Personally, I think you should take practice versions of both tests—that’s the only way to really get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses prior to test day. You can find a practice SAT test here and a practice ACT exam here. Then you can use an online score converter to compare your practice ACT composite score to your practice SAT score to see which test you scored higher on.

To learn more about the differences between the SAT and the ACT, don’t forget to sign up for my free email course designed to demystify both of these exams so you’re less stressed about taking them.