Should You Take the SAT or ACT Test?

When deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT test, keep this in mind: the ACT AND SAT require different kinds of skills.

Some teens can significantly increase their scores just by picking the right standardized test to take.  Here are reasons why the ACT or SAT might be better than the other:

Teens who do well on the ACT tend to share these characteristics:

  • Fast reader.
  • Process information quickly.
  • Possesses strong memory.

The ACT is a more straightforward test, but it requires students to speed through the test. The ACT gives the teenagers significantly less time to answer questions than the SAT. Here’s an example:

Reading Portion of the ACT

  • Number of questions: 40
  • Time allowed: 35 minutes

Reading Portion of SAT

  • Number of questions: 54
  • Time allowed: 70 minutes

The ACT reading section isn’t tricky and contains simple vocabulary, but the challenge is speeding through it. The ACT also tests a student’s short-term memory abilities because, unlike the SAT, it doesn’t give students the specific lines on a passage where the answer can be found.

Midnight oil burner: If a child must spend a great deal of time on homework and assignments to earn good grades, the SAT will probably be the better test.

Teens who do well on the SAT tend to share these characteristics:

  • Possesses strong vocabulary.
  • Avid reader.
  • Like test-taking strategies.
  • Enjoys puzzles.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT requires a strong vocabulary because it inserts words like ephemeral, churlish and phlegmatic into the sentence completion part of the test and in reading passages.

Unlike the ACT, which has simpler reading passages, the SAT reading sections are trickier, but students have a longer time to process.

Because the SAT contains lots of  smoke screens, student who enjoy puzzles can do better. Students who aren’t as strong in grammar can also fare better on the SAT because the grammar rules that the SAT tests are easier to learn ahead of time. The ACT grammar is more difficult.

Bottom Line: If you are struggling with the the SAT vs ACT question, take a free sample test offered through the test makers to see which is the superior test for you.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

Further Reading:

The Great ACT and SAT Test Debate

Which Test Scores to Send: SAT or ACT


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15 Responses to Should You Take the SAT or ACT Test?

  1. Lisa Jones June 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    I meant to write in the last sentence, will the low SAT hurt more than the high math sat score will help him.

  2. Lisa Jones June 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    I have a question for submitting test scores. My sons wants to apply to Princeton for engineering. He has a 35C ACT sub scores are all 35 except 36 on science. His SAT was math 800, reading 690 and writing 660. His ACT is much better than his SAT but should he also submit the SAT because of his 800 in math? He also has an 800 in SAT II Math II. Will the SAT score hurt his chances more than the math 800 will hurt? Thank you

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy June 25, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

      Hi Lisa,

      DO NOT Submit the SAT score. It’s too low for Princeton.

      Submit the ACT result and the SAT Math II subject test result.

      Lynn o.

  3. NickLaMantia February 14, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Thanks for sharing this informative post. I agree that vocabulary must be strong for SAT test.

  4. Karen Berlin Ishii April 8, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    As an SAT and ACT prep tutor of many years (and as a parent who has gone through this process twice, myself), I respectfully disagree with the Julie, the college counselor, in her advice that every student take both the SAT and ACT twice.

    I have found that no student has the time and patience to not only take two tests, but prep effectively for both. It’s overkill and not necessarily even good strategy to submit both SAT and ACT scores. Brown University, for example, reportedly will not consider your ACT scores if you also submit SAT scores.

    Since most students do comparably on both, what makes the most practical sense, I have found, is for students to pick one test and see how they like it and how they do (which are usually related). If the test score is consistent with their general academic achievement, then prep for that one test. If the student’s results are low in comparison, then try the other one.

    I agree with Lynn’s characterization of the kind of students who excel on each test. As a rule of thumb for my own students, for those who are weak in vocab and not much of a writer, but are strong in math and science, the ACT is a good choice.

    One more reason to take the ACT is that some colleges accept the ACT in lieu of the SAT + Subject Tests. For students who do not have two or three subjects in which they can expect to excel, the ACT can be a terrific option – saving the student some test-taking time and costs, too.

    Since the ACT is a little bit shorter than the SAT, and the essay, which doesn’t count, comes at the end, for students with attention issues, this may be a very important factor. Finally, for students applying for extra time accomodations, if only one test accepts their request, that is the test they must take, as that extra time will make a tremendous difference in their scores.

  5. Mike Bius August 5, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    I really like the breakdown explaining the different skill sets for the ACT test vs. the SAT. It’s interesting that you didn’t really list science knowledge / aptitude as a vital skill for the ACT and I totally agree. The Science portion should be more appropriately titled the “Science Reasoning Test.” Also, the fact that guessing incorrectly is not penalized on the ACT is huge, as statistically you would score a 14 even if you never read the questions and just guessed on every one!

  6. Caroline R February 3, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Great post-lots of useful information.

    I agree that vocabulary is essential on the SAT. Vocab Videos (http://www.vocabvideos.com/) is a low-cost SAT vocabulary resource that uses hilarious short videos to illustrate the meanings of over 500 high frequency SAT vocabulary words making them easy for students to learn and remember.

    They have a free list of 500 common SAT vocabulary words that are featured in the videos along with their definitions (http://www.vocabvideos.com/blog/sat-vocabulary-free-word-list-of-500-key-sat-words).

  7. Daisy A February 1, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    understand how important the SATs are, and I got a high score because I had the opportunity to review at Wilson Daily Prep.

    They really helped me get ready for my college entrance exams.

  8. Julie January 28, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    I am a college guidance counselor at an independent college prep school. My standard rule is that EVERY student MUST take BOTH the SAT and ACT at least twice, preferably between January and June of their junior year. This gives at least two test scores from which colleges may “super-score” a student for admission purposes (highest CR + highest math from all test dates). More colleges are beginning to super-score the ACT as well. However, College Board’s own published research indicates that there is no appreciable increase in scores after three test sittings. Of course…cost is also a factor in deciding which test(s)to take and how many times. They aren’t cheap. CB and ACT make BIG money on testing and they, along with inumerable other entities, make even more on test prep. This is a great idea that has morphed into a many-headed monster. Unfortunately, rumors of the death of the SAT and ACT have been greatly exaggerated.

  9. Zahir Robb January 22, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    I agree with Ms. Watts in that students should definitely take both tests. It is often hard to judge how you will do on either test, so limiting yourself to one test or the other is a mistake. When results are recieved, view the concordance charts from the CollegeBoard (http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/act-sat-concordance-tables.pdf)to compare scores and decide how you will proceed from there.

    • Lynn January 22, 2010 at 9:56 am #

      Zahir, I understand what you’re saying, but it seems to me that it requires a lot of hard work and psychic energy to sit through more than one test if it’s not necessary. I still think that if you are happy with your score on either the SAT or ACT, stop there.

  10. Susie Watts January 21, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    As a test prep coach for more than twenty years, I encourage students to take both the SAT and ACT sometime in the spring of their junior year. Some will prefer one test over the other, but some still want to take both again. There is not a college in the country that will not take either test and all schools are looking for the highest score. I usually suggest students take either the SAT or ACT or both at least two of three times. Sometimes the third time produces the highest score for no particular reason. Some students prefer the SAT
    because it is broken into more sections and seems shorter. Others like the ACT because they can guess with no penalty.

  11. Jeanne Krier January 20, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    This post is such a good idea as the two tests have major differences. The Princeton Review has a book on this topic titled “ACT OR SAT?: Choosing the Right Exam for You” that helps students decide which test they are most likely to do their best on. It came out last June and it has detailed info on both tests plus a diagnostic test in the book, the Princeton Review Assessment.

    • Lynn January 21, 2010 at 9:47 am #

      Jeanne,

      Thanks for the resource I didn’t know about the Princeton Review book. I will have to check it out!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  12. Grand Canyon University - GCU January 20, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Thanks for the useful information. I really enjoyed your post

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