High school students who are beginning their four-year college application journey will have to decide which test to take: the ACT or the SAT.

Both of these tests are nationally administered standardized tests that prospective colleges will use to evaluate your application and determine your preparedness for college level classes.

The ACT and the SAT are nearly identical when it comes to the material and the format. Both tests take 3 to 4 hours to complete and contain math sections, English sections, and sections on grammar and reading comprehension.

So which test is the right one for you? Keep reading to find out!

Comparing Your Options: ACT vs SAT

Let’s start by looking at these two tests side by side. Most college boards accept scores from either test, so you can choose the one that best fits you.

Here’s a quick list of the main differences:

  • The SAT does not have a science section. However, the “science” subject test in the ACT is very easy and has very little to do with science.
  • The optional essays between these tests are different. The SAT will ask you to evaluate a pre written argument, while the ACT will have you create your own argument and support it.
  • The ACT math section is completely multiple choice, while the SAT has 13 fill-in-the-blank math questions.
  • You are allowed a calculator on the ACT but you are only allowed to use a calculator for about half of the SAT math section. However, the “without calculator” portion of the SAT does not require difficult arithmetic.
  • The SAT is much less time intensive. This is the biggest differentiator between the two; You will have more time per question on the SAT, so some consider it to be the less intense test. On the other hand, the ACT requires you to move quickly through your questions.

If you want to know the details of the differences between the SAT and ACT, check out my thorough breakdown below!

Picking the Right Test for You

If you want to have a top notch application that will impress a college admissions department, you are going to need high test scores.

In order to do this, you need to take the best test. But which is it?

Now that you know the specific differences between these two important tests, it’s time to figure out which one is the best for YOU.

Don’t even bother taking both tests; it’s just a waste of your study efforts. Focus on ONE test since you don’t get any extra benefit from taking both. Just make sure that the colleges you are applying to will accept the test you choose to take.

The first step in picking the right test for you is taking an ACT and SAT practice test. If you’re still in high school, your counselor should be helpful in this department. You can compare your initial scores to get a rough idea on which test you perform better on.

But if your scores are too close to decide, here are some tips for deciding between the ACT and SAT!

Pick the SAT if You…

  • Want to focus on as little science as possible.
  • Are confident with your ability to write excellent analytical essays.
  • Get panicked when facing tough time limits and/or struggle with pacing.
  • Have difficulty finding details while reading.
  • Hate the idea of not answering every question.
  • Are not confident with Geometry.

Pick the ACT if You…

  • Have a hard time explaining the reasoning for your correct answers.
  • Aren’t confident with your vocabulary.
  • Like having different topics tested in separate sections.
  • Want to use a calculator for math.
  • Have a firm understanding of experimental design.
  • Can eloquently argue your own opinion.

Choose Your Test and Crush It!


In order to make sure you have the best possible application for your desired school’s college board, you will need to decide which test to take. Hopefully, my breakdown provided you with enough guidance to make a confident decision and work your way toward a bachelor’s degree or greater!

Now it’s time for you to prepare for your test; don’t waste too much time picking which one is right for you. I suggest you check out some test dates for either the ACT or the SAT to give yourself enough time to prepare. It may not hurt to look up some effective test-taking strategies or reviews on ACT prep courses or SAT courses. Keep in mind that you may want to take your test multiple times until you get a score you are proud of.

Good luck!

Kenneth W. Boyd

Kenneth W. Boyd is a former Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the author of several of the popular "For Dummies" books published by John Wiley & Sons including 'CPA Exam for Dummies' and 'Cost Accounting for Dummies'.

Ken has gained a wealth of business experience through his previous employment as a CPA, Auditor, Tax Preparer and College Professor. Today, Ken continues to use those finely tuned skills to educate students as a professional writer and teacher.