SAT vs ACT - Breakdown & Test-Taking Strategies

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

One of the major components of a student’s college application is their standardized test score. Students may take either the SAT or the ACT; both are accepted by colleges. However, the two tests have some crucial differences, and many eventually find that they prefer one over the other. Here, we’ll compare key features of the SAT and ACT so that you can see their similarities and differences. Then, we’ll discuss how to figure out which test is right for you.

Comparing the SAT and ACT

Test Structure and Format



Which test should I take?

Nowadays, many students opt to take both the SAT and ACT so that they have more score options, while others choose to focus only on the one test that better suits their abilities.

The best way to determine which test might be better for you is to take at least one timed, full-length practice test of each type. Although the length and structure of both tests are relatively similar, each test has its own feel, which you can really only get a sense of through actually doing practice tests. Furthermore, one of the most notable differences between the tests is that the ACT has a science section, while the SAT does not. While some students find this section challenging to acclimate to, others really enjoy it—this completely depends on the test-taker at hand.

Test-Taking Strategies

One of the most important—and often stress-inducing—components of a student’s college application is their standardized test score. Students may take either the SAT or the ACT—both are accepted by colleges (for an in-depth comparison of the two tests, see our previous blog post). However, success on either test requires preparation and practice; this takes a considerable amount of time and can appear daunting at first. Here, we’ll provide some key tips and tricks when it comes to prepping for the SAT and ACT.

Before the test

  • Get a sense of where you’re at early on. Take a diagnostic test, and figure out whether you’d like to take the SAT or ACT (or both), at least 6-8 months before your desired test date. It’s important to know where you’re starting from so that you can set realistic goals for your ultimate score. This also gives you time to hone the specific skills that you need to work on.

  • Make a study schedule and commit to it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to balance school, extracurriculars, time with family and friends, and studying for the SAT or ACT. Before you begin studying, create a detailed plan that includes what, when, and how often you’re going to study. We recommend mapping it all out on a calendar or planner. Consistency is key!

  • Take at least 3 timed, full-length practice tests before test day. Full-length practice tests give you the most realistic experience of what test day will be like. The SAT and ACT are long—close to 4 hours—and it’s important to build up your test-taking endurance. We recommend taking, at minimum, one practice test at the start of your studying, one in the middle, and one at the end.

  • Practice bubbling in your answers on the answer sheet. It’s tempting to skip this step and merely circle your answer choices on the test booklet itself when you’re practicing, but bubbling in answers on a separate sheet of paper is a part of the actual test-taking process. Incorporate this into our practice so that when test day comes, you’re already used to bubbling in your answers quickly and accurately. (Printable practice answer sheets are available online; check out this one for the SAT and this one for the ACT.)

  • The day before the test, take a break! Don’t overdo it the night before your test. Instead of trying to do any last-minute cramming, do an activity you enjoy or spend time with family and friends—it’ll help ease your nerves and put you into a positive headspace, which will be extremely beneficial as you go into the test.

During the test

  • If you get stuck on a question, skip it and come back to it later. You’re expected to answer a lot of questions in a short amount of time, and every second is valuable. To avoid wasting time, go through and answer all of the easier questions first—then come back to the harder ones. No question is worth more than another in terms of points, so this strategy maximizes the number of questions you’ll be able to complete.

  • Eliminate wrong answers. Remember that there’s only one correct answer choice for each question! It’s often easier to get rid of the wrong answer choices rather than pick out the right one. Help yourself by eliminating the obviously wrong choices, so that even if you do have to ultimately take a guess, it’ll be one that’s more informed.

  • Mark up your passages during the reading and writing sections. When you read each passage for the first time, annotate it. This includes doing things like underlining key words and points. This will help you when you refer back to the passage to answer questions.

  • Don’t rely too heavily on your calculator during the math sections. It may be tempting to use your calculator at every possible opportunity, but doing so can bog you down. Remember that nearly all of the questions can be solved without the use of a calculator. Practice solving as many questions on your own as possible so that during the test, you only use a calculator when it’s necessary. For SAT-takers, this will also help boost your confidence during the no-calculator section!

Our college counselors are well versed in the differences between the SAT and ACT and are happy to consult with students on what their standardized test-taking strategy should be based on their individual strengths.

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