Should I Take the ACT or the SAT? What's the Difference?

Getting ready for college can be tough enough without having to worry about whether or not you should take the SAT, the ACT or both.

While both tests are standardized to evaluate candidates for college admission, there are major differences between the two tests, and how you score on either test can vary significantly. The good thing is that most colleges will accept either score from the SAT or ACT.

So, which test should you take? Here is what you should know.

SAT and ACT Basics

These two tests are significantly different in many ways. The ACT, which is more common in the Midwest and the South, is an achievement test that focuses on school curriculum-based skills including English, mathematics, reading, and science.

On the other hand, the SAT, which is more popular in Eastern colleges, is an aptitude test that measures literacy, writing skills, and assesses how well a student can analyze and solve problems.

Key Differences between the ACT and the SAT

While the results of both the ACT and the SAT tend to be similar, the actual content and style are not so comparable. Here are some major differences.

  • SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary. If you are an enthusiastic wordsmith, SAT may be good for you. Conversely, if you have good language skills, but a not so great vocabulary, ACT might be a better option for you.
  • ACT tests for science. One of the most significant disparities between the two tests is that ACT tests for science in areas such as chemistry, biology, and physics. However, you do not need to be a science genius to tackle the ACT science questions. In fact, the ACT science section is only meant to assess your reading and reasoning skills. But if you are a real science whiz, the ACT will likely be easier for you. 
  • The SAT guessing penalty. Unlike ACT, which does not penalize candidates for guessing, SAT deducts points for wrong answers, which could hurt your overall score. Although this difference does not make one test easier than the other, most candidates find the guessing penalty stressful. (Note that the new SAT coming March 2016 has no penalty for wrong answers).
  • The essay option on SAT is compulsory. While the ACT essay option is not obligatory, the SAT essay is unavoidable and is factored into your composite score. However, most colleges may require your ACT essay scores before admitting you. So be sure to check with the schools admission department before opting out. (Note that changes to the new SAT will mean the essay becomes optional once again).
  • The ACT is more of an exam on the “bigger picture.” When it comes to the ACT, College admission officers are most concerned with your overall score, which is far much different when compared to the SAT where they check on how you did on each section. Therefore, if you are weak in one area but strong in others, you could end up with a good ACT score that could make a strong impression with the admissions committee.
  • Grammar Test. The ACT tests English grammar while the SAT does not. Hence the ACT is typically a better choice for ESL students.

The New SAT

If you are preparing to take the SAT test after March 2016, some of the differences that you are reading here will no longer apply, thanks to the New SAT.

The new expected changes will include:

  • No penalty for incorrect answers.
  • No more difficult-to-understand vocabulary.
  • Fewer answer choices (4 instead of 5).
  • The essay section will be optional.

So, Which Test Should You Take?

While there is no test that is superior to the other, the decision on which test to take is dependent on your strengths and weaknesses, and the admission criteria laid out by your college of choice. However, if the school is not specific to a particular test, your preference, and familiarity with each test individual structure may help you decide which test is best for you.

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