ACT or SAT - Which is Best for College Admissions?

College bound students suffer much angst over the ACTs and SATs. Deciding which one is best for you will help increase your scores and better your college admissions process.

It’s true.  Colleges don’t have a preference when it comes to either the ACT or SAT tests; they both fulfill the same role in the college admissions process. The ACT originated as a standardized test required by colleges in the Midwest whereas the SAT was required on the East and West Coasts.  But now, colleges accept both ACT and SAT test scores. These significantly different tests measure different skills, so it is up to the student to decide which test would best suit them based on their own testing strengths and weaknesses.  Wouldn’t you rather take a test that you already show an advantage for based on your learning and testing styles?

How do the ACTs and SATs differ?

Understanding where each test puts its emphasis and how it works will help you decide which test is right for you.  Traditionally, the ACT has been described as a content-based test, whereas the SAT tests critical thinking and problem solving.

The ACT is designed to test your skill levels in math, reading, English, and science reasoning. The two hours and 55 minutes multiple choice style test is divided into four sections: one for each tested subject area. The English, reading, and science sections each include several reading passages with anywhere from 5 to 15 questions per passage. The math section includes 60 multiple choice style questions.

The three hours and 45 minutes SAT is designed to test your skill level in reading comprehension, vocabulary and math. The test is divided into seven sections: three verbal, three math, and one experimental section. The verbal and math sections each have their own distinct question types, including quantitative comparisons, sentence completions, and more. The experimental section, used by the test developer to try out new questions, is not scored and can be either math or verbal. However, you will not know which section is experimental.

Here’s a listing of a more detailed breakdown of the differences:


  • Testing questions are often long, but are more straightforward.
  • Includes science-reasoning section.
  • Tests English grammar, but less emphasis on vocabulary.
  • Has a 30 minute writing essay that is not required.
  • Requires more advanced math skills, including trigonometry.
  • ACT testing handles the different sections, (math, critical reading and writing) all at once, rather than breaking them down.
  • No points are deducted for wrong answers.


  • Testing questions may make you think a little harder, due to phrasing which can sometimes be a little tricky.
  • Much stronger emphasis on vocabulary, but doesn’t emphasis grammar.
  • Testing is broken up into several sections, not all of which are multiple choice; you will do some math, some critical reading, some writing, then the cycle begins again. For some, this type of format might be distracting.
  • Has a 25 minute required writing essay.
  • Except in some parts of the math sections, ¼ of a point will be deducted for a wrong answer.
  • No science reasoning section.

Each test is scored differently, yet they both allow you to choose the set of scores you want to submit to your chosen colleges. The ACT will provide you with many broken down scores (which is a great way to see in which areas you need further  study prior to retaking the test).  The composite is the important one that you’ll pass on to your selected colleges. It ranges from 1-36. Nearly half of all test takers fall in the 17-23 range. The SAT is scored on a scale of 200-800 for both the verbal and math sections, with the average score being at 500 for each. A perfect score on the SAT is 1600.

Students tend to perform better on one style of testing over another. So making the choice for which suits your style can make all the difference in how you score.

Crystal Anderson is the president of Crystal Clear College Planning, which helps Seattle-area families plan financially and academically for college. Learn more about our free local workshops on planning for college.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Shannon Michael February 11, 2013 at 09:57 PM
Good information. My daughters took both tests then reported their ACT scores because they scored better on them than their SATs. Another benefit to the ACT over the SAT is that the ACT with Writing satisfies the test reporting requirement, whereas many schools now want the SAT along with at least 2 subject tests, both of which cost extra money to take.
Tony Bussert February 14, 2013 at 03:26 PM
You should really take both, and submit the one you do better on. I took both SAT's and ACT. Scored in the top 1% of the nation on my ACT's (ended up getting me admission to the Connie Belin Center for Gifted Education at the University of Iowa). I found the ACT a lot easier, but I was also in a head on collision the day before my SAT's so I wasn't exactly in the best place to take it, LOL!
Crystal Anderson February 14, 2013 at 05:23 PM
We use a diagnostic test do help students determine which test is best for them SAT or ACT so that they don't have to sit through two tests. The Diagnostic gives us a report of each section and the breakdown of how you would do without having studied so the student can then choose the one test that is right for them and focus on that one test to improve on.


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