Should I Take the ACT or the SAT?

As you well know, there are two major college entrance exams—the ACT and the SAT. Some students take one over the other based on where they live (certain areas of America seem to have a different preference), and others simply take both.

But if you’re asking yourself the question: which should I take? Ask yourself another question first: why are you asking that? Is it because you wonder if colleges prefer one over the other (hint: they don’t)? Or is it because you’re thinking about which test to take so you can score better? If your question is related to the latter, read on!

The ACT and SAT are formatted a little differently. As such, they feature different ways of testing their students. A student might prefer the ACT’s format over the SAT’s format, for example. So let’s break down the differences between the big two.

Two arrows diverging on a blue background.

Flickr user eltpics


The ACT breaks down into four different sections: Reading, Math, English, and Science. And then there’s the optional Writing portion with the essay.

Reading / English: When it comes to asking questions, the ACT tends to be a little more straightforward than the SAT. There is less intuitive thinking involved, as it’s more focused on the answers themselves than the logic leading to it.

Math: The ACT tests on a wider range of mathematical concepts than its SAT counterpart. Additionally, the calculator is allowed for the entirety of the math section, unlike the SAT were it is sometimes limited. However, the ACT does not give students a cheat-sheet of mathematical formulas—they must be memorized.

Science: The ACT takes an approach to the science section that’s less about scientific principals or theories and more about charts, graphs, and the ability to interpret them. A familiarity with scientific terms is still a must, however, but it’s unlikely that you’ll need to memorize the atomic numbers for elements on the periodic table.


Unlike the four sections of the ACT, the SAT only has three: Reading, Math, Writing / Language. The essay is now optional, whereas before 2015/16 it was mandatory.

Reading, Writing / Language: The SAT used to be well-known for its love of language and vocabulary words, and while it still definitely is a fan, it is becoming more ACT-like in its straightforwardness. For example, in the reading passages, the SAT will still give you much more information than you’ll strictly need, but it will give you line numbers when they reference them in the questions, cutting down on re-reading time.

Math: There’s a much stronger focus on algebraic formulas in the SAT than the ACT. Fewer questions ask about trigonometry and geometry on this test. Some mathematical formulas will be provided for you, however, you won’t be able to use your calculator on the entire section.

So Which Should You Take?

Well, it honestly depends on you. Students who prefer math and science classes might fare better on the ACT, where language and English students might like the SAT more. Of course, it really depends on the individual. If you’re not happy with the score you get on one test, consider either retaking it or simply taking the other one. Check out practice courses online and peek at ACT/SAT prep books to see which one you might be more comfortable with.

Interested in seeing how your ACT / SAT score affects your acceptance odds or financial aid? Use College Raptor’s free match tool to find out!