Should You Take the SAT, the ACT or Both?

Should You Take the SAT, the ACT or Both?

The SAT and ACT are different tests with the same purpose in college applications. You can take the SAT, the ACT, or both.  That fact can be perplexing to college applicants wondering which to take. In this unit, we’ll cover everything you need to know so you can make an informed decision.

Application Requirements of Your Target Schools

The SAT and the ACT are made by different, competing organizations, and each of them does its best to promote its own test as the best college admissions test. But the reality of the situation is that both tests are widely accepted and they are more similar than they are different. In general, the tests are about equivalent, and one isn’t significantly “better” than the other.

However, each college or university you’re applying to will have its own requirements. You must check those; you can do that by Googling the name of your target college plus the words “application requirements.”

It’s typical for colleges to accept the SAT or ACT equally. For example, here are Harvard’s application requirements:


An excerpt from Harvard’s Application Requirements. You should check the application requirements of all colleges you’re applying to


As you can see in the image above, in the case of Harvard, the SAT vs. ACT question is extremely simple: you can take either one. This will be true of many colleges. If all your target colleges have a policy like this one, neither test is “better” – the choice is yours.

Which Test Will You Perform Better On?

The SAT and the ACT are similar, but they have a couple basic differences:

  • The ACT has a science section.
  • The SAT tests vocabulary more.
  • The ACT tends to be more fact-based, whereas the SAT is more reasoning-based.

As far as math goes, there are no significant differences beyond the inclusion of trigonometry in the ACT. Both tests include geometry, algebra, problem solving among other questions.

Furthermore, tests last between three and four hours, so duration is another non-factor in comparing the tests.

If you’re especially strong at science or weak in vocabulary, you might want to consider the ACT. If your memorization skills are better than your reasoning skills, that’s another reason to lean toward the ACT. On the other hand, if your memorization skills are strong, then you should be able to do well on SAT vocabulary. My goal when giving advice is always to boil everything down into a simple answer, but the truth in the SAT vs. ACT question is: it just doesn’t really matter that much.

Going with the Flow

So, as you can see, the SAT and ACT are a little different, but not too different. It doesn’t matter much which one you take. If you have a college counselor or older students in your life to give you advice, you might simply follow their advice.

For example, typically students from the East and West coasts take the SAT and not the ACT. In the midwest, it’s more common to take the ACT only or both exams. As this map shows, the geographic separation is actually pretty striking!

SAT vs ACT preference by geography

SAT vs. ACT: Preference by Geography

Source: Wikipedia

Sometimes sticking out is worth it, but in this case, going with the flow might be helpful. If you take the test that is more common in your area, you can get advice and study materials from other students and guidance counselors. There may be more resources for that particular test in your area, such as tutors and courses.

This Course

In this course, we cover only the SAT, and there is no ACT Free (currently, at least). So, from this point forward, we will assume that you are preparing for the SAT, whether or not you take the ACT also. I hope you hang around, but either way, the key thing is to practice for the test that you take.

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