Should I take the SAT or ACT?

February 11, 2021

Should I take the SAT or ACT? – and when should I start preparing for it?

Good questions! In fact, these are likely the most important SAT or ACT questions you will answer. 

Most universities in the US require students to take the ACT or SAT admissions test. These tests are meant to assess how prepared you are for university by evaluating your reading, writing, math and data analysis skills. Since several million students across the world take the tests each year, they also provide data comparing your performance to that of your peers. Together with your grades and IB, A Level or AP exams results, the ACT and SAT help universities evaluate your academic potential. And – depending on which universities you apply to – your ACT and SAT score can count for as much as 50% of an admission decision

What can you do to get the score you need? First, you need to make sure to choose the right test. Universities generally do not prefer one test over the other and neither test is objectively easier than the other. However, one test might be better suited (and thus comparatively easier) for you. And for certain types of students, the SAT or ACT will be more than just easier… it will be a perfect math for their learning styles and abilities. This is why choosing the right test for you is so important: it means you means you will already be at a comparative advantage when you start your test prep. So how do you know which test is better suited for you?

Here is some information to help you decide between SAT or ACT: 

  • The ACT and SAT test essentially the same material, but through different structures:
    • The ACT has 4 sections: English, Reading, Math and Science
    • The SAT has 4 sections: Writing/Language, Reading, Math (without a calculator) and Math (with calculator)
  • The English (ACT) and Writing/Language (SAT) sections are basically exactly the same. They test the same content and have nearly identical structures. 
  • The ACT’s Math section test slightly more complex material, such as trigonometry and matrices.
  • The ACT Science section does not test your science knowledge! Rather, it tests your ability to interpret data from charts, tables, figures and graphs. 
  • Both tests offer optional essay sections. The essays are different, but one is not necessarily more difficult than the other – and there are strategies you can learn do well at both. Check to see if the universities you are applying to require you to take the essay section. 
  • Both tests are very fast paced, but the SAT gives you more time per question across all sections.

No one knows you better than you know yourself, so you should already have an idea of which test is better suited for you based on these differences. Still, the best way to decide which one to take is to sit down and take a practice test so that you get a feel for each test. 

When should you start preparing for the tests? Most students take the test at least two times. You should aim to take your first official ACT or SAT in the fall of your penultimate school year. This will give you time to retake the test in the spring, and – if you still need a higher score – you can take the test one last time in the fall of your final year. 

If you get the score your need your penultimate year, you will free up your final year to work on your university applications. Also, you won’t have to split your study time between the ACT/SAT and your AP, A Level or IB exams. So, if you are in secondary school, you need to start thinking about your test preparation Now. Choose the right test, prepare for it and reach your target score – ideally – before your final year.