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The Big Choice: The SAT vs. the ACT and Test-Optional Schools

Choosing which standardized test to take (or even to take them at all) can be tough. Here's some advice to help you make the big choice between the SAT and ACT.

For the majority of high school students planning to go to college, there’s a push to decide early in your high school career whether you should take the SAT or ACT. Depending on your geographic location, your high school may have already implemented one of these two college entrance exams in your required testing for sophomore, junior, or senior year. However, these tests are not exactly the same. While either one is accepted by postsecondary institutions, determining which is best for you can be hard for some students who are unfamiliar with these exams. And with test-optional institutions, there’s also a major decision of whether to submit your test scores if you do take them. Here’s a guide to help you figure out which test is best for you and how to know if you should submit your scores.

The format of the SAT

The SAT has two primary components: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Mathematics. There are two sections to EBRW—one primarily focused on reading that’s 65 minutes long, and one focused on writing and language skills that’s 35 minutes long. The Math component can also be broken into two sections: one section with calculator access that’s 55 minutes long, and one without calculators that’s 25 minutes long. There’s also an optional evidence-based Essay that’s 50 minutes long, which some schools require. In total, the test takes three hours (three hours and 50 minutes with the Essay). Each section is scored on a scale of 200–800, with the composite score ranging from 400–1600. The Essay is scored separately from the composite score with a maximum score of 24 based on reading, analysis, and writing. For perspective, the average SAT score was 1060 in 2021.

The format of the ACT

On the other hand is the ACT, which has four sections: 45 minutes of English, an hour for Mathematics, 35 minutes of Reading, and 35 minutes for Science. There’s also an optional Writing section for this test where you write an essay in 40 minutes. The ACT in total also takes about three hours with breaks (or just under four hours if you take the ACT Plus Writing). Each of the four main sections are scored on a scale of 1–36. Your composite score is then calculated based on the average of all your section scores. The Writing section is also scored separately from the composite score like the SAT and is scored on a scale of 1–12. For the Class of 2020, the average composite ACT score in the United States was 20.6.

Related: 5 Key Differences Between the SAT and ACT

Which test is right for you?

Neither of these tests are easy—so if you were thinking you’ll just take whichever one is “easier,” you’re out of luck. The best way to determine which exam you’re likely to perform better on is simple: Sit down and take practice tests for each. Try simulating as close to the actual test day environment and experience as you can to reduce any stress. From there, you can determine your ability with each one based on the percentile of your practice scores. Whichever practice test you score highest on is likely the one you’ll perform better on during the real thing.

As you may have noticed, one of the main differences between the two tests is the Science section on the ACT. But the SAT does generally incorporate some science questions throughout the exam. The SAT also has two Mathematics sections as opposed to one on the ACT. Take these differences into account in relation to your academic strengths when choosing. Regardless of which test you take, you’ll need to study well beforehand to properly prepare and score your best.

To submit or not to submit your scores

When it comes to submitting your scores to test-optional schools, look at the average SAT or ACT scores of admitted students for any given college to determine whether yours fall in their range. You can easily find this information online on any school’s admission page. If your scores are at or above the average scores for admits of that college or university, it’s likely beneficial to submit them even though it’s optional. You may also be required to submit standardized test scores if you want to qualify for institutional scholarships. However, if your scores fall below the average for a test-optional school, it may be better to not submit them; you’ll just need to make sure the rest of your application shines without this component that many other students will include. Finally, when it comes to test-blind colleges, don’t bother submitting your scores at all; these schools will not look at them.

Related: Is the SAT/ACT Worth It With New Test-Optional Policies?

Both the SAT and ACT are important when it comes to applying to college. Although they have slight differences, they’ll both aptly determine your eligibility for admission, scholarships, and more. Start researching test-optional schools if you’re scoring below the average threshold on your practice exams. However, it’s important to remember your scores don’t define you nor your intelligence. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to use those to your advantage when it comes to applying to colleges and scholarships.

Once you decide which exam you’ll take, you have to really get ready for it! Use our article on How to Prepare for the ACT, SAT, and Other Tests to help you.

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About Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a high school junior who has a passion for writing and speaking about the relevant issues of today. She's involved in activities such as speech & debate and writing/speaking competitions, which allow her to inform others and share her perspectives on causes she cares about. Her goal is to pursue a career in the medical field and specialize in Neurology in honor of her uncle who suffers from a rare neurological condition.


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