SAT or ACT? Take advantage of diagnostic tests to help decide

by Richard Pan

One of the tough decisions that a high school student has to make is whether to take the SAT or the ACT. Each has its advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of the test taker, but which one should you take? We will break things down into a few different considerations, but first, let’s take a look at the back-stories.


Introduced in 1901, the SAT is the older of the two exams. It has gone through several iterations since its inception, from open-ended essay questions on a range of topics (including English, math, physics, chemistry, and foreign languages) to the current format of three multiple-choice sections on math, reading, and writing. The ACT was first administered in 1959, and in terms of subjects tested, the test has remained substantially unchanged through the years. An optional writing section was added in 2005 to the existing sections on English, math, reading, and science.

[Continue reading for a detailed comparison and our recommendation]


The SAT and the ACT are both painfully long tests, but the SAT takes the prize for length. Clocking in at 3 hours and 45 minutes, the SAT dwarfs the 2 hour 55 minute ACT (which does not include the 30 minute optional writing section). Both tests are almost completely multiple-choice, except for the short essay sections.

There are 3 major sections on the SAT: Critical reading, math, writing, and 1 unscored experimental section. Total number of questions on the SAT: about 171. On the ACT, there are only 4 sections: English, math, reading, and science (5 if you count the optional writing section). But there are also more questions: 215.

All in the all, the ACT tests more subject areas and asks more questions over a shorter period of time. However, while the ACT tests relatively concrete material that you should have learned in school, the SAT is billed as a reasoning test, which theoretically makes it more difficult to study for. If you do well in school but are not as good with critical reasoning, the ACT is probably better suited to you. If you thrive on standardized tests in general, the SAT is right up your alley.


Each of the three sections of the SAT counts for 800 points, for a total of 2400 points. You are penalized ¼ of a point for each incorrect response. On the other hand, each section of the ACT is scored on a 36-point scale, and the composite score is simply the average of the four sections (not including the optional writing section). The good news is that there is no penalty for incorrect responses on the ACT. What does this mean? If you are risk-averse, the ACT may be better suited for you because you likely will not be as hesitant to guess as you would on the SAT. Accordingly, if you are more risk-taking, the SAT may be a better fit for you because you are more likely to guess in the face of penalty, which is not a bad strategy especially if you can eliminate incorrect answer choices.

School Preferences


Many top colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did not accept ACT scores until fairly recently. Even now, however, several of these elite schools explicitly state a preference for the SAT. If you have the time and will to study for and take both tests, do it—but that is certainly easier said than done. Most students will not have the time to dedicate several months of preparation to each test, and it is probably better to focus your efforts on other, equally important factors such as grades and extracurricular activities. The most effective course of action is to figure out the SAT-or-ACT preferences of the schools to which you think you may be interested in applying, and then factor that into your ultimate decision.


Currently, the SAT costs $47 per administration while the ACT costs $33. However, this does not include the optional writing test which, should you decide to take it, bumps up the price tag to $48. Honestly, though, price should not be a factor at all when it comes to something that could conceivably have an impact on the rest of your life.

Other Considerations

There are a number of other psychological and sociological factors that may play a role in which test is better suited for you, ranging from whether you are a boy or girl to whether you are an overachiever or underachiever. On that topic, the New York Times put out a helpful article here.

The Bottom Line

There are many factors that you should consider before deciding whether to take the SAT or the ACT. Of course, you could take both, but for most people, that is not worth the time or the pain in preparation. Ultimately, the answer comes down to what your targeted schools want and which test you are naturally better at. The best way to figure this out is to take diagnostic tests for both the SAT and the ACT on your own time to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Another good strategy is to take the PSAT or the PLAN tests that are often administered by high schools. These “preparatory” tests are often good indicators of how well you will do on the SAT and ACT, respectively.

Once you have decided which test to take, it is a good idea to register for a test several months in advance to set a goal for yourself and to help you prepare a study plan. To register for the SAT, go here. To register for the ACT, go here.

About the author: Richard is an attorney and is currently also the Director of Princeton Tutoring. He is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Michigan Law School.


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