Should You Take the SAT or ACT Test?

When deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT test, keep this in mind: the ACT AND SAT require different kinds of skills.

Some teens can significantly increase their scores just by picking the right standardized test to take.  Here are reasons why the ACT or SAT might be better than the other:

Teens who do well on the ACT tend to share these characteristics:

  • Fast reader.
  • Process information quickly.
  • Possesses strong memory.

The ACT is a more straightforward test, but it requires students to speed through the test. The ACT gives the teenagers significantly less time to answer questions than the SAT. Here’s an example:

Reading Portion of the ACT

  • Number of questions: 40
  • Time allowed: 35 minutes

Reading Portion of SAT

  • Number of questions: 54
  • Time allowed: 70 minutes

The ACT reading section isn’t tricky and contains simple vocabulary, but the challenge is speeding through it. The ACT also tests a student’s short-term memory abilities because, unlike the SAT, it doesn’t give students the specific lines on a passage where the answer can be found.

Midnight oil burner: If a child must spend a great deal of time on homework and assignments to earn good grades, the SAT will probably be the better test.

Teens who do well on the SAT tend to share these characteristics:

  • Possesses strong vocabulary.
  • Avid reader.
  • Like test-taking strategies.
  • Enjoys puzzles.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT requires a strong vocabulary because it inserts words like ephemeral, churlish and phlegmatic into the sentence completion part of the test and in reading passages.

Unlike the ACT, which has simpler reading passages, the SAT reading sections are trickier, but students have a longer time to process.

Because the SAT contains lots of  smoke screens, student who enjoy puzzles can do better. Students who aren’t as strong in grammar can also fare better on the SAT because the grammar rules that the SAT tests are easier to learn ahead of time. The ACT grammar is more difficult.

Bottom Line: If you are struggling with the the SAT vs ACT question, take a free sample test offered through the test makers to see which is the superior test for you.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

Further Reading:

The Great ACT and SAT Test Debate

Which Test Scores to Send: SAT or ACT

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12 Responses to “Should You Take the SAT or ACT Test?”

  1. Grand Canyon University – GCU January 20, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Thanks for the useful information. I really enjoyed your post

  2. Jeanne Krier January 20, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    This post is such a good idea as the two tests have major differences. The Princeton Review has a book on this topic titled “ACT OR SAT?: Choosing the Right Exam for You” that helps students decide which test they are most likely to do their best on. It came out last June and it has detailed info on both tests plus a diagnostic test in the book, the Princeton Review Assessment.

    • Lynn January 21, 2010 at 9:47 am #


      Thanks for the resource I didn’t know about the Princeton Review book. I will have to check it out!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Susie Watts January 21, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    As a test prep coach for more than twenty years, I encourage students to take both the SAT and ACT sometime in the spring of their junior year. Some will prefer one test over the other, but some still want to take both again. There is not a college in the country that will not take either test and all schools are looking for the highest score. I usually suggest students take either the SAT or ACT or both at least two of three times. Sometimes the third time produces the highest score for no particular reason. Some students prefer the SAT
    because it is broken into more sections and seems shorter. Others like the ACT because they can guess with no penalty.

  4. Zahir Robb January 22, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    I agree with Ms. Watts in that students should definitely take both tests. It is often hard to judge how you will do on either test, so limiting yourself to one test or the other is a mistake. When results are recieved, view the concordance charts from the CollegeBoard ( compare scores and decide how you will proceed from there.

    • Lynn January 22, 2010 at 9:56 am #

      Zahir, I understand what you’re saying, but it seems to me that it requires a lot of hard work and psychic energy to sit through more than one test if it’s not necessary. I still think that if you are happy with your score on either the SAT or ACT, stop there.

  5. Julie January 28, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    I am a college guidance counselor at an independent college prep school. My standard rule is that EVERY student MUST take BOTH the SAT and ACT at least twice, preferably between January and June of their junior year. This gives at least two test scores from which colleges may “super-score” a student for admission purposes (highest CR + highest math from all test dates). More colleges are beginning to super-score the ACT as well. However, College Board’s own published research indicates that there is no appreciable increase in scores after three test sittings. Of course…cost is also a factor in deciding which test(s)to take and how many times. They aren’t cheap. CB and ACT make BIG money on testing and they, along with inumerable other entities, make even more on test prep. This is a great idea that has morphed into a many-headed monster. Unfortunately, rumors of the death of the SAT and ACT have been greatly exaggerated.

  6. Daisy A February 1, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    understand how important the SATs are, and I got a high score because I had the opportunity to review at Wilson Daily Prep.

    They really helped me get ready for my college entrance exams.

  7. Caroline R February 3, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Great post-lots of useful information.

    I agree that vocabulary is essential on the SAT. Vocab Videos ( is a low-cost SAT vocabulary resource that uses hilarious short videos to illustrate the meanings of over 500 high frequency SAT vocabulary words making them easy for students to learn and remember.

    They have a free list of 500 common SAT vocabulary words that are featured in the videos along with their definitions (

  8. Mike Bius August 5, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    I really like the breakdown explaining the different skill sets for the ACT test vs. the SAT. It’s interesting that you didn’t really list science knowledge / aptitude as a vital skill for the ACT and I totally agree. The Science portion should be more appropriately titled the “Science Reasoning Test.” Also, the fact that guessing incorrectly is not penalized on the ACT is huge, as statistically you would score a 14 even if you never read the questions and just guessed on every one!


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