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SAT Vs. ACT: The smackdown between standardized tests

By Chris Thomas on October 31st, 2010 •

We've grown up with standardized tests through grade school, middle school, and high school. The only thing they don't have a standardized test for is popularity, and if they did you know it would be unfair. Anyway, when you're getting ready to (finally!) graduate, there are only a couple of tests left. The good news is that they don't have to waste your time.

You've probably heard of the SAT (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (formerly American College Testing). What most people don't know is that for applications and admissions at most schools, these tests are virtually interchangeable. One test may cater to your strengths more than another, so you want to know as much as possible about both tests before you start studying.

(Always check application requirements for schools you're interested in to see if they buck the trend with specific test requirements or if you're lucky, no requirements at all).


One or two higher scores can cover up lower scores in other test areas. So students well versed in advanced mathematics should consider the ACT. The ACT incorporates trigonometry in addition to other math material covered in both tests. Students with an affinity for English might prefer the ACT, covering punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. The same is true for those strong in the sciences.

Natural wordsmiths may score higher with the SAT. It tests vocabulary through sentence completions and reading comprehension. But take note: the SAT presents general reading passages, whereas the ACT delves into social studies, natural sciences, prose fiction, and the humanities. So unless you're game for the ACT topics listed, it would be wise to stick with the general reading in the SAT.

If you're still not sure which one to take, register for official practice tests, like the PSAT. Those results can help determine your strengths and even give you the chance to win scholarships.


Consider your test-taking style when choosing the SAT or ACT:

  • Do you have test endurance? Those with greater attention spans might perform better on the four-hour-long SAT, while the ACT -- nearly an hour shorter -- should be considered by those who have trouble sitting through long exams.
  • Do you prefer multiple-choice or producing your own answers? The ACT only uses multiple-choice (except the opt-in writing portion), whereas the SAT tests multiple-choice, student-response math questions, and a required writing section.
  • Are you a guesser? The SAT deducts one-quarter of a point for every wrong multiple-choice answer, so it's best to leave blank any answer you're unsure of. The ACT has no such penalty.

Familiarizing yourself with testing formats, types of questions, and environments they're administered in can give you a leg up come test day. Take advantage of the resources at sat.collegeboard.com and actstudent.org -- the SAT and ACT homepages. Both sites offer a wealth of free study materials, free sample questions, and low-cost prep courses. There are also many study guides available for purchase. If you want to go that way, the safest bet will probably be official texts like The Official SAT Study Guide ($21.99) or The Real ACT Prep Guide ($25).

If you've studied and practiced both exams and neither stands out, register for both. At the end of the day, you choose which scores are distributed. And colleges will be happy to see either test result (or even both).

The Bottom Line

Schools often accept both tests; but in 27 out of 50 states, over 50% of students take the ACT. Don't settle for popularity -- determine the test that's right for you.

Sources: actstudent.org; act.org; collegeboard.com; kaptest.com