Please note that this article was written prior to the coronavirus outbreak and outlines the traditional yearly testing schedule for the SAT and ACT. If you’re wondering how the coronavirus is changing testing this year, please see our article How COVID-19 Is Affecting Standardized Tests for more information.
Completing standardized testing requirements is an essential step in the college application process, but with all the information out there, it can also feel like one of the most challenging. So here is an overview of the SAT and ACT, plus how to prepare for them and how to decide which exams to take—if any at all!
General knowledge tests
The SAT has been used since the mid-1940s as a standard admission requirement for colleges across the United States. About 20 years ago, it split into two sections—the SAT I (Reasoning Test) and SAT II (Subject Tests). (Subject Tests were terminated in 2021.) The SAT I is designed to test applicants’ computational skills, reading comprehension, and clarity of written expression through multiple-choice questions and an optional essay. The ACT was established in 1959 as an alternative to the SAT, and its popularity spread quickly across the Midwest, then the rest of the country. Like the SAT, it contains multiple-choice questions and an optional essay that measure high school–level skills.These days, the tests are about equal in terms of popularity, and most colleges accept scores from either. Let’s explore what the tests cover and the major differences between the two.
The SAT contains 154 questions across four main subject areas:
- Reading: This section asks you to read five passages then answer questions that test your understanding of the text and ability to draw logical conclusions.
- Writing & Language: This section asks you to improve written passages by editing and proofreading. Together with Reading, it makes up 50% of your composite score.
- Math: This section makes up the other 50% of your score and covers a range of topics in arithmetic, algebra, and other computational skills with an emphasis on problem solving, modeling, and data.
- Essay (optional): This section asks you to read a passage and write about how the author built their argument, supported by evidence from the passage. You’re not asked to form an opinion but simply to demonstrate your ability to construct an argument. While this section is optional on the test and scored separately, it may be required by some colleges.
The SAT takes approximately three hours without the Essay, and 3 hours and 50 minutes with it. It consists of several timed alternating sections for Math, Writing & Language, and Reading where the order differs from test to test. It’s scored on a scale of 400–1600, with your score based on the number of questions you get right. You don’t lose points for incorrect answers.
The ACT contains 215 questions across five main subject areas that appear in the following order:
- English: This section asks you to read five passages then answer questions that test your understanding of the text. Other questions ask you to make edits to demonstrate your grasp of standard English conventions like sentence structure and punctuation.
- Math: This section covers topics in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and probability and statistics.
- Reading: Five passages test your ability to read closely, draw logical conclusions, and integrate information from multiple sources. You may be asked to state the main idea, make comparisons, or determine the meaning of context-dependent words.
- Science Reasoning: This section measures your ability to interpret and solve problems in the natural sciences, including biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences, and physics. While you don’t need to be an expert in these areas, you should have some background knowledge of them.
- Optional Essay: The writing prompt describes a complex issue and three different perspectives on it. You must develop your own perspective (or choose one of those presented) and write an essay analyzing the relationship between your perspective and one (or more) of the others. As with the SAT, the Essay section is optional for the test and scored separately, but sometimes it’s required by colleges.
The ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes without the essay, and 3 hours and 35 minutes with it. Like the SAT, you receive points for each correct answer and zero points for incorrect or skipped questions, but the ACT is scored on a scale of 1–36.
Related: Why You’re Ready to Take the ACT
Which test should I take?
While the makeup of the tests is similar, there are a few major differences:
- Time per question: While the tests take about the same time to complete, the SAT has 61 fewer questions, giving you significantly more time per question.
- Science Reasoning section: If you have a solid background in the natural sciences, the ACT may appeal to you; Science makes up 25% of your score here.
- Math section: The ACT focuses much more on geometry than the SAT and covers a few topics the SAT skips (such as matrices). There are also smaller differences—the SAT provides a guide to common math formulas at the beginning of each Math section, which the ACT lacks. But unlike the ACT, the SAT has one section that doesn’t allow a calculator. Most importantly, Math makes up 50% of your total score on the SAT, versus 25% on the ACT (due to its inclusion of the Science Reasoning section).
Review both the SAT and ACT websites thoroughly before making your final decision. Each website contains more information about what’s covered and the specific differences between the tests to help you determine which one will fit you best. Most experts don’t recommend taking both the SAT and ACT, since colleges don’t require scores from both, and prepping for them takes a lot of time and energy.
Did you know?
Interestingly, the letters “SAT” don’t actually stand for anything. The test was originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test and was renamed the Scholastic Achievement Test in 1993, but eventually the College Board dropped the name entirely. Same with the ACT; it originally stood for American College Testing but now goes by its initials. As people have become more aware of the many different factors that impact a person’s scholarly success and ability to learn, words like “aptitude” have started to feel irrelevant and oversimplified; after all, a single test can’t claim to measure a person’s full intellectual potential. Changing test names is an indicator of admission committees’ movement toward considering the whole student, not just traditional academic performance.
When should I begin standardized testing?
Most students begin testing during the second half of their junior year, which allows time to schedule, study for, and retake tests if needed. If you have a busy schedule full of extracurricular activities, a heavy homework load, or early application deadlines, you may want to begin even earlier. Decide which tests to take as early as possible and leave plenty of extra time for yourself to succeed.
When to take the SAT or ACT
The SAT is offered seven times a year: in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. The ACT is also offered seven times a year, but the timeline varies more widely. Plan to take either test up to three times to ensure your highest possible score, but wait until you know your score before registering for the next one. Once you get the score you want, there’s no need to take it again. Retakes can greatly improve your score by increasing your comfort level with the test and allowing more time for review, so it’s smart to retake the test if there’s a possibility of improvement.
None of the above?
The conversation around standardized testing is changing. While many colleges still require test scores, a growing number of schools are de-emphasizing their role in admission decisions. There are now over 1,000 US colleges that do not require standardized testing. They fall into two categories:
- Test-optional schools allow you to decide whether you want to submit test scores. Send scores if you feel they represent your academic skill and potential; if not, skip them.
- Test-flexible schools require some form of standardized test score but are flexible about which. For example, they may allow you to send Subject Test or AP Test scores instead of regular SAT or ACT scores.
If you’re considering test-optional or test-flexible schools in your college search, take the following steps:
- Carefully research requirements. Create a checklist, laying out the requirements for each school you’re considering, to avoid missing or mixing up requirements. Contact admission staff if a policy is unclear in any way.
- Consider testing anyway. As noted above, testing can improve your application even if it’s not required. If you know you tend to do well on tests or in a certain subject, testing can help prove your strength and show colleges that you take the initiative to excel. It’s worth noting that you can cancel scores within a few days of taking a standardized test, and some colleges allow you to send some test scores without sending all of them. Look into these options if you aren’t sure how you’ll do.
- Consider what else makes your application special. High school is busy, and these tests take time to prepare for; you shouldn’t feel pressured to take them if your schools of interest don’t require them and you don’t feel they’ll help your application. If standardized testing isn’t for you, ensure that other parts of your application make you stand out. Include information about extracurriculars, AP Test scores, or letters of recommendation from teachers in different areas that could give you a competitive advantage.
The discussion around whether standardized testing “works” has heated up in recent years. There are many types of learners, and many argue that tests can’t capture the full picture of a student’s learning potential. However, test scores remain a time-tested way for colleges to measure applicants’ skills and can really help your application stand out from the rest. Do your research and decide which solutions work best for you. Test scores or not, if you carefully consider your strengths and make choices that will allow you to present yourself in the best way possible, admission committees will take notice.
Have you decided which tests you’re taking and need some study advice? Check out more helpful blogs in our Test Prep section!