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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Chebat

SAT vs. ACT: Choosing the Right Test

a path leading into two separate directions

When it comes to college admissions, choosing between the SAT and ACT can be a pivotal decision for students. Understanding the key differences between these tests is essential for selecting the one that best suits your student's strengths and academic goals. Importantly, the SAT has transitioned to a new digital format, altering the considerations involved in this decision. Here’s a comprehensive comparison to help you make an informed choice.

1. Structure and Format

New SAT: The SAT is now entirely digital, featuring two main sections: Reading and Writing, and Math. The test is adaptive, meaning the difficulty adjusts based on the student's performance.

ACT: The ACT remains a paper-based test with four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science, along with an optional Writing section.

Key Difference: The SAT's adaptive nature and digital format offer a different testing experience compared to the traditional paper-based ACT.

2. Scoring

New SAT: Scores range from 400 to 1600, combining results from the Reading and Writing and Math sections.

ACT: Scores range from 1 to 36, with each section scored individually and then averaged to create a composite score.

Key Difference: The scoring scales differ, so understanding how scores translate can help in determining which test reflects your student's abilities more accurately.

3. Timing

New SAT: The digital SAT takes about 2 hours and 14 minutes, making it shorter than the previous version.

ACT: The ACT is about 2 hours and 55 minutes without the writing section and 3 hours and 35 minutes with it.

Key Difference: The new SAT is shorter, which may benefit students who prefer a more concise testing experience.

4. Math Content

New SAT: The Math section now allows calculator use throughout and focuses on algebra, problem-solving, data analysis, and some advanced math concepts.

ACT: The ACT covers a broader range of topics, including trigonometry and geometry, and includes more straightforward questions.

Key Difference: If your student is stronger in algebra and prefers using a calculator, the SAT may be preferable. If they excel in a wider range of math topics, the ACT could be the better choice.

5. Reading and Language

New SAT: Reading and Writing are combined, with shorter passages and one question per passage, focusing on comprehension and analytical skills.

ACT: Reading passages are generally more straightforward. The English section tests grammar and usage through concise questions.

Key Difference: If your student enjoys quick reading and analysis, the SAT might be a better fit. For those who prefer more direct questions, the ACT may be more suitable.

6. Science

New SAT: No dedicated science section, but science-related reading passages may appear.

ACT: Includes a Science section that evaluates data analysis, interpretation, and problem-solving skills in natural sciences.

Key Difference: The ACT’s Science section might appeal to students who enjoy interpreting scientific data and hypotheses.


Deciding between the SAT and ACT depends on your student's strengths, preferences, and academic goals. Encourage them to take practice tests for both exams to see which format feels more comfortable and aligns better with their skills. Ultimately, choosing the right test can play a significant role in achieving the best possible score.

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