One of the questions we are asked most frequently is “should I take the ACT”?

I always tell juniors that they should try both the SAT and the ACT.  Even if you do not take an official test, you should at least take a practice test of each to get an idea of the differences and see which test showcases your strengths better.  This does not mean that you need or should send both SAT & ACT scores to college.   Since both tests are meant to test a student’s college readiness, one set of favorable scores is all you need.

You can take a practice SAT  or  a practice ACT here.

Historically, the test that you took was determined by the schools in which you planned to apply—East coast and California schools preferred the SAT while mid-West schools preferred the ACT.  Now, schools use either test for admissions with no preference.  For more information about the history of the tests, check out this interesting blog.

Who tends to do better on the ACT?

The primary difference between the ACT and SAT is that the ACT covers more content but the questions are asked in a way that students often find more familiar or more straightforward.  For example, the ACT math section includes trigonometry, imaginary numbers, logarithms, and matrices.  These topics are not found on the SAT.  However, the way that the questions are asked on the ACT look more like what students would see on a math test in school.  For this reason, the ACT often favors students that have taken a rigorous course load in school but do not test well on tests that require a lot of logic and reasoning skills like the SAT.

Another big difference is that the ACT does not penalize students for guessing incorrectly while the SAT deducts ¼ raw score points for each incorrect answer.  This can add up to a large scaled deduction.  Leaving questions blank on a test is not an idea that students are familiar with in school so it can be tricky to decide whether to guess or omit on top of the pressure of taking the test in the first place.

The ACT also does not have any compare/contrast passages or vocabulary questions.  These are often two of the most challenging areas of the SAT Critical Reading section so that can be helpful for some students.

Who tends to do better on the SAT?

The ACT has more questions in less time.  For example, the writing multiple choice section allows an average of 36 seconds per question on the ACT but about 43 seconds per question on the SAT.  For this reason, students that have a lot of difficulty with time management on tests often have more difficulty on the ACT. 

Also, as mentioned, the ACT does have more content.  Students that have taken a less rigorous curriculum may find the ACT more challenging.  The ACT also includes a science section.  The primary skills needed to be successful on this section are a basic understanding of experimental design and the ability to interpret data tables and graphs.  This does not require a lot of general science knowledge but it can be challenging for students that are not familiar with lab sciences.


As mentioned, there is a benefit to the ACT in that students are not penalized for guessing incorrectly.  On the SAT, students lose points for guessing incorrectly but earn 0 points for leaving a question blank.  In school, students are taught to do their best and put an answer for everything so this is not an idea that students are familiar with.

However, the SAT has a benefit in how the scores are combined across test dates.  On the SAT, there are three scores of 800 each for a total of 2400 points.  Most schools will combine the highest math section, highest reading section, and highest writing section even if they are taken from different dates for admissions decisions.  For example, if these were a student’s scores:


















Then, the overall score would be the highest section, which is a total score of 1860.  This is higher than any single date.

On the ACT, the score is a composite score from 0-36.  This means that the 4 scores from reading, English, math, and science are averaged to give you a composite score.  Most schools will not take the highest section from different dates.  Therefore, students have to do well on all 4 sections on the same test date

Overall, there is no downside to trying both tests.  Determining which one highlights your strengths is a great strategy for being competitive during the college admissions process. Good Luck!