ACT vs. SAT: Which Test Is For You?

by Stuart Nachbar, Daytripper University Contributor *

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By now most college-bound high school juniors have had prior exposure to the SAT if they have taken the PSAT this past fall. Those who are projected to score high—over 700 on each section—might want to make plans to take the SAT this spring. The structure, material and test-taking strategy are the same, with the addition of a Writing section that most colleges do not consider in the admissions process. But what if you are not projected to score high on the SAT? Should you consider taking the ACT instead?

The ACT, the other standardized test accepted by more than 1,300 colleges, is structured differently from the SAT. According to the Compass Education Group, a global test prep tutoring firm with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, important differences between the ACT and the SAT include:

  • The SAT has two sections of Math, one where you may use a calculator, the other where you may not. The ACT has one Math section and allows you to use a calculator to solve every problem. If you are used to working with a calculator in all of your math classes you might prefer the ACT.

  • The variety of Math problems will different. There are more pre-Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry problems on the ACT. There are more Data Interpretation, Algebra I and Algebra II problems on the SAT. Your choice of test may depend on the Math classes that you have taken, and how well you graded in them. It is extremely difficult to expect a tutor to teach you a new math unit that you have not already covered in school.

  • The ACT has a separate section in the sciences. These are not questions where a student’s memory of Biology or Chemistry will be tested. Instead these questions ask the test taker  to read and draw conclusions from passages and data in tables and graphs. The SAT places science-themed questions in the Evidence-Based Reading and Math sections of the test. If you have struggled with reading material in science classes you might prefer the ACT only because you know that these passages will be in the last section of the test, and your tutor can help you pace yourself to complete this section to the best of your ability. Tackling a hard science passage within the middle of the Evidence Based Reading section of the SAT might compromise the amount of time that you have left to answer the other questions.

  • While both tests are offered in October, December and June, the ACT and SAT have different test dates for other months of the year. If you are reading this post with the intention of preparing for the SAT, the next test dates will be in March and May. If you have taken a practice ACT, the next test dates for all test takers will be in April and June. Check the schedules for both tests and be sure that you will have enough time for tutoring and preparation. You will also want enough time to see your scores and plan out a strategy to raise them before you register for the next test.

Talk to a reputable tutor and she will tell you not to commit to a standardized test without taking some practice tests under timed testing conditions. There are websites where you may find practice tests for no charge or you may purchase testing books from the College Board for the SAT and from the ACT for their test. It’s always better to have as much experience as possible with these tests when the scores don’t count, than it is to show up on the test date less prepared for the test that does.

An independent college and graduate school admissions advisor based in Central New Jersey, Stuart Nachbar blogs on higher education at For more about his writing and services, contact him at