Should your Child take the SAT or the ACT?

When preparing for college, high school juniors and seniors are expected to take the ACT or SAT test. Heck, in my city, students are supposed to start taking the SAT in kindergarten (ok maybe not, but in 8th grade). When I was in school, the SAT was the test that everyone took, but I am starting to wonder if the ACT would have been a better choice for my academic needs. As many of my academic coaching students are starting to prepare for the college hunt, I decided to start hunting differences that might help them decide which test is the right fit.  

As I started my hunt, I relied on Dr. Google to see “What is the difference between the ACT and SAT?”

The differences are slim, but where they differ might make the difference for a student who has weaknesses in certain academic areas. Areas such as time, weight of questions and use of a calculator might make a world of difference between your standardized test scores.

Some Key Differences between the ACT and SAT

When preparing for college, high school juniors and seniors are expected to take the ACT or SAT test. Heck, in my city, students are supposed to start taking the SAT in kindergarten (ok maybe not, but in 8th grade). How do you know which test is best?    #SAT #ACT #collegeprep  Marni Pasch Team Pasch Academic Coaching


  1. Test Focus

The SAT focuses on a student’s ability to solve problems and reason. It might take some knowledge of tricks and tips to solve for the “best” answer vs the right answer.

The ACT wants high school graduates to demonstrate the skills they learned in their years of high school, including a focus on science.

One might argue that the SAT is abstract and similar to an aptitude test while the ACT wants practical answers to a series of questions on math and science.

The SAT does include science questions but they are interspersed in the reading sections of the test.

2. Test Sections

The ACT lasts for a total of 3 hours 40 minutes (2 hours 55 minutes without Writing) while the SAT requires 3 hours and 50 minutes (3 hours without Writing). During this period, students answer questions in five sections which are slightly different in each test.

In the ACT, the sections include English (75 questions), Math (60 questions), Science (40 questions), and Reading (40 questions) while Writing (1 question) is optional.

The SAT, on the converse, has Reading (52 questions), Writing and Language (44 questions), Math (without calculator) (20 questions), Math (calculator) (38 questions), and an essay (1 question) which is also optional.

The main difference is that the ACT allows a calculator for ALL of its sections where the SAT does not. This can take the pressure off of a student who struggles with keeping calculations in order. However, the ACT does NOT provide formulas on the test. This might trip up a student who has trouble memorizing the needed equations.

3. Time per Section/ Question

The time provided for sections and questions varies both in the ACT and SAT. Usually, the SAT provides more time for each section and question. This may affect you if you get stressed when you have limited time to attempt questions.

Under the ACT, English lasts 45 minutes while SAT gives 35 minutes for Writing and Language. The SAT Math (No calculator) lasts 25 minutes and Math (Calculator) lasts 55 minutes but the ACT Math lasts 60 minutes.Reading in the ACT lasts 35 minutes whereas it lasts 65 minutes in the SAT.Science in ACT lasts 35 minutes whereas there is no Science in the SAT.The optional essay lasts 40 minutes in the ACT and 50 minutes in the SAT.

There are tips and tricks you can research if you want to practice your time techniques on either test. These are great strategies to learn and can help your child with all test taking.

4. Scoring System

First, note that the optional essay in either of the tests doesn’t influence your overall score.

The total score range in the ACT is 1-36 per section and the average of the four section produces your final score.

The total score range in the SAT is 400-1600.

5. The weight of the Sections

The weight of each section has fluctuated as the tests have changed over the years. You will want to check the current information, but the SAT has given more weight to the math section in the past than on the ACT. If you are wary of math, the ACT might be a better choice for your college acceptance test. The weight of each section might be worth a glance if you are stronger in math than in English. Purchasing the recent additions of prep books (or at least making certain you are aware of the differences for each version) can help you stay up-to-date on the current scoring.

The bottom line

As someone that struggles in math, I’m willing to bet that I would have done better at the ACT than the SAT. The question is, why didn’t I try? Looking back, I am fairly certain after taking the SAT 3 times and scoring in the same score in math 2 times in a row, I didn’t want to look at another test. Would my frustration have wanned if I researched the tests in more detail? Sadly, Dr. Google did not exist when I was in high school. Today's students have far more information at their fingertips.

Try a practice test, check out some practice books at the library. See what test fits you best. The tests change often, so make sure you are looking at current information.

These are two books I have I found to be helpful for my students. Again, feel free to check them out at the library, but if you purchase through these links, I will receive some love from the Amazon peeps.