SAT vs. ACT: Which test is better?


Emma Brading '25

PSATs, SATs, and ACTs were all recently taken at the Academy. Both the SAT and ACT are meant to either directly affect the chances of getting into a specific college or, by today’s standards, the tests are often meant to make a specific applicant stand out amongst others with similar grade point averages. While these tests have been established for decades, they still seem like an enigma, at times. Many questions can be asked regarding the two tests in relation to each other. What are their differences? Do colleges prefer one over the other? And most often: which test is better? Well, before that key question is answered, it is important to know more about the tests themselves. 

Most notably, the SAT and the ACT differ strongly in regards to content. The SAT has four sections: reading, grammar, no-calculator math, and calculator math. The ACT has five sections: grammar, math, reading, science, and an optional writing section. So, even by just listing the sections, there are clearly elements of each test that are better fit for a specific student. If one is better at quickly digesting excerpts of literature and is also more efficient regarding mathematics, the SAT appears to be the better option. However, if a student is a strong writer and can also digest graphs and scientific data skillfully, then the ACT is most likely the best route. Another bit of information that is useful regards the math portions of both tests, in particular. The ACT, while not being more difficult, does contain mathematics problems that require higher-level math skills. For example, logarithmic equations are on the ACT, while the SAT does not mention them. However, the ACT does allow for a calculator throughout the entire math section, while the SAT, as mentioned before, has one section without a calculator, and one with. Another critical difference between the two tests regards the way in which one answers the questions. If you have taken the PSAT (or SAT), you are aware that, in the math section, there are a few questions which require “student produced responses”, meaning that there are grids that you have to fill in with your own calculations. This is not present on the ACT, all questions are multiple choice. Another aspect that could probably just be inferred from the number of sections is the scoring differences. The ACT and SAT are scored on different scales, however there is another difference. Since there are five sections on the ACT, all five count for 25% each, meaning that your score in one section is not as impactful as on the SAT. Overall, the two tests have different aspects which cater to different students. Yet, there are a few misconceptions that could possibly skew your decision on which test to take. 

Arguably the most common misconception regarding the two tests is that the SAT is taken in the Northern parts of the U.S., while the ACT is taken in the Southern parts of the U.S. This idea is completely false, as every college in North America accepts either test. Another misconception that often branches from the previous one is that one test is more difficult and, therefore, is preferred by colleges. Again, this sentiment is incredibly false. Especially since, today, many colleges have made the tests optional, taking either test and scoring decently well most likely gives an advantage alongside your GPA in high school. Something else that–while it does not compare the two tests, it is worth knowing–can be misunderstood is that one must answer every single question correctly on either test to achieve a perfect score. And, while there is little room for error to achieve a perfect score, don’t go into the test thinking you must get every single question correct to get the score you want (however, in saying this, it is crucial to remember to answer every single question even if you’re not fully sure). Another misunderstanding regards the science section of the ACT. Oftentimes, the science section of any test can seem intimidating if one struggles with science, so if they can avoid it, then why not just avoid the ACT? It is important to remember that the science section is less testing you on scientific knowledge than it is testing your ability to read data and utilize it in answers. Finally, the prime misconception is simply how different the two tests are made out to be. Sure, the ACT may be better for you than the SAT, or the other way around. However, this does not mean you will do terrible on either test based on your preconceived notions. Both are actually very similar, in ways, as they are meant to achieve the same goal. So, with this in mind–which test is better? 

Due to the nature and general points of this article, I’m sure you will not be surprised in the slightest by my opinion. As Shakespeare said best in Macbeth, “to each their own”. These tests are meant to help you and if that means taking one due to its use of graphs or not taking one due to its emphasis on upper-level math, then do that! If you are able to, I would definitely recommend taking both tests, as you can truly feel which you are more comfortable with and then do better on. Lastly, just make sure that you are doing whichever works best for you (and that you can retake the tests, too).