SAT VS ACT: What Students Should Consider

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By the middle of high school, most students have the words “SAT” and “ACT” drilled into their minds, and how crucial they are for college applications. We see it in the news, parents and teachers may have mentioned it, and some schools even offer the test for free for juniors. With so much talk around the importance of standardized testing, the SAT and ACT have become the bane of every high schooler’s existence, and it can be especially hard trying to understand the differences between the two and which might be better to take. This article will break down the logistics of the two tests to help you decide how to choose between them.  

General Information and Geographic Trends

Historical Background:  

  • The SAT was created in 1926, shortly after the formation of College Board (the company that owns the SAT and AP exams), as the first college entrance exam in the United States. It is popular on the East and West coast of the United States and is used internationally as well. 
  • The ACT came a while later in 1959 as a competitor test, launched by a University of Iowa professor. It is popular in the Midwest and South 
  • The SAT was seen as a test based on critical reasoning and problem solving while the ACT is based on high school curriculum with straight forward questions, but a tighter time constraint. However, recent trends see students all over the nation taking both tests to gauge their strengths and have a choice of what to send to universities. 

Breakdown of the Test Formats

  • The SAT and ACT were quite different until the SAT changed drastically in March of 2016. Since then, both exams have similar formats, but with minute differences outlined below


Choosing A Test

  • The best approach to understanding the differences between the SAT and the ACT is to take a sample diagnostic test of both, under timed settings. Sample tests can be found from the official websites for each exam, as well as Khan Academy and other sites. This will help you get a sense of what the questions and time pressures are like for each exam, and once you choose a test, you can continue your practice from there.  
  • Alternatively, it is recommended to prepare for and attempt both exams at least once – even though both exams are different, they’re still testing the same concepts and skills. Remember that most students already know most of the material the exams test; the trick is to practice the analysis and test taking skills required. 

The following is a sample timeline: 

1)    Try a diagnostic test for each test early in the summer before junior year, and use the rest of the summer and beginning of junior year to prepare for the tests.  

2)    Take your first attempt(s) sometime in the early fall, and if you would like to attempt the tests again, you’ll have winter break to study a little more.  

3)    You can attempt the exams again in the spring, and as a maximum, you can push until the beginning of summer before senior year. Avoid testing during AP exam/finals season. 


  • This timeline may not work for everyone, but the reason it’s helpful is that it allows for all testing to be done before senior year, so you can use the summer and rest of fall of senior year to prepare college applications, without the stress of also studying for exams. You’ll also have scores on hand and not have to worry about whether they will be sent to universities before application deadlines.  
  • Finally, check if your high school administers an SAT or even ACT exam on a designated day for all juniors and seniors, free of cost. Many high schools do this, and it can be a good way to add in an extra attempt without paying the cost of the exams.  

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