Most US universities require students to submit either the SAT or the ACT. Here's how to choose between them.
Both tests aim to assess critical reasoning, reading and math, and the ACT also tests your understanding of scientific experiments. Many, if not all major colleges accept both these tests and do not prefer one over the other.
Both tests are held almost every month, the exact schedules can be found here for the ACT, and here for the SAT. Bear in mind that students from densely populated areas should aim to register well before the deadline, as spots tend to fill up quickly.
Both tests will release their scores online to you for free, but will charge a small fee (around $12) per university you want your scores sent to. Both tests also cost about the same, around $90 for international students. Both the test fee and the score sending fee can be waived for students who receive free school lunches.
Up until 2023, the SAT was a three-hour pen-and-pencil exam. However, from spring 2024, it will be 2 hours and 14 minutes long and fully digital for all students.
The ACT is 2 hours 55 minutes long, with an additional 40 minutes for students doing the optional essay. At the time of writing, it’s a paper and pencil exam for US applicants, and a digital exam for international applicants. However, it’s possible that it will be fully digital for all students in the near future.
Students can sign up for the SAT here and for the ACT here
The SAT recently got revamped and is now scored out of 1600, whereas the ACT is scored on 36 points.
The SAT has two main sections: Math, and Reading and Writing.
The ACT has four main sections – Reading, Math, English, and Science – plus an optional Writing section.
Both tests are fairly similar, with all questions being multiple-choice, but there are some key differences that might cause a student to pick one over the other.
In Math, the ACT tends to cover a wider variety of topics, and often requires slightly more mathematical insight. The SAT puts more of an emphasis on algebra, whereas the ACT has a large amount of trigonometry. A last key difference is that the SAT gives you a number of mathematical formulas, whereas the ACT does not.
An example SAT math question could be something like “The recommended daily calcium intake for a 20-year-old is 1,000 milligrams (mg). One cup of milk contains 299 mg of calcium and one cup of juice contains 261 mg of calcium. Which of the following inequalities represents the possible number of cups of milk m and cups of juice j a 20-year-old could drink in a day to meet or exceed the recommended daily calcium intake from these drinks alone?”, with the following answer choices:
A. 299m + 261j = 1,000
B. 299m + 261j > 1,000
C. 299/m + 261/j = 1,000
D. 299/m + 261/j > 1,000
The question asks you to transform a text problem into a mathematical equation, and as is usual in these types of tests all answers will look relatively correct.
An ACT math question could look like this: “Abandoned mines frequently fill with water. Before an abandoned mine can be reopened, the water must be pumped out. The size of pump required depends on the depth of the mine. If pumping out a mine that is D feet deep requires a pump that pumps a minimum of + 4D – 250 gallons per minute, pumping out a mine that is 150 feet deep would require a pump that pumps a minimum of how many gallons per minute?”, with the following possible answers:
Again, this is a relatively wordy question that asks you to turn a situation into a mathematical problem. You may have noticed that the questions are fairly similar, and this mostly holds true throughout the tests. Preparing for one test will also prepare you fairly well for another.
English, Reading and Writing
The SAT has a single section on Reading and Writing.
The ACT has sections on English, Reading, and an optional section on Writing.
These sections are very similar and it is hard to say why certain students find either the SAT or the ACT easier. Both tests require you to first answer simple sentence construction questions concerning a text.
For example, in the following passage “I grew up with buckets, shovels, and nets waiting by the back door; hip-waders hanging in the closet; tide table charts covering the refrigerator door; and a microscope was sitting on the kitchen table”, you are asked what might be a replacement for the first part, and are given the following options:
A. NO CHANGE
B. waiting, by the back door,
C. waiting by the back door,
D. waiting by the back door
A good feel for and understanding of the English language are the most important things you need to have in order to be prepared for these sections. There are never any technical questions, such as defining a certain literary device or recognising an adverb.
This link gives a good example of the ACT reading section.
This link gives some good examples of SAT reading questions.
Only the ACT offers the optional essay component. It is required by some universities but disregarded by others. The SAT no longer asks for the optional essay. The ACT asks you to respond to one of a few prompts. The way this essay is structured is a bit more complicated (and in all honesty, quite vague), and is detailed here.
The ACT then has the added Science section, which throws a lot of people off, but is not actually about scientific knowledge so much as it is about deducing information from graphs and familiarity with scientific lingo. This section contains a text about some scientific discovery or process, with a few graphs, and asks you to answer questions such as “According to the information provided, which of the following descriptions of [the topic of the paper] would be accepted by both scientists?”. If you have a scientific background, you might be more in your element when answering these questions, but scientific knowledge is not required to score highly on this section. The advantage of the ACT science section is that it is a way to show scientific know-how without taking an extra SAT subject test.
Choosing between the ACT and SAT
All in all, these two tests are very similar, yet people often find that they prefer one over the other. There are definitely more SAT prep resources, but some students find the ACT is easier to do well on without loads of special prep.
One of the best things to do is a practice SAT and a practice ACT, so you become familiar with the style of questions, and then keep practising the one you prefer.
SAT practice tests are available here
ACT practice test questions are available here