Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

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Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

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Students often struggle with figuring out which standardized test to take. In fact, research shows that there are pointed differences between the two. Therefore, this suggests that making the right choice might pay off handsomely for certain students who demonstrate a higher aptitude towards one over the other. But, as a busy high school student, you don’t want to waste time studying and taking both. How do you decide between the SAT or ACT?

Here are a few key differences to keep in mind!


SAT is more critical thinking focused, while ACT is more science based.

Test Style:

SAT questions are evidence and context based, focusing on real world situations while ACT questions tend to be more straightforward and easier to decipher

Difficulty Levels:

SAT questions increase in difficulty as you move through a section while ACT questions vary in difficulty randomly. One point of departures is the Reading Level: All of the passages on the ACT English section are at a relatively easy reading level while the passages on the SAT Writing & Language section can vary in difficulty, from a 9th grade reading level to early college. 


SAT math questions involve problem solving and data analysis but they include formulas while the ACT does not. However, the ACT math section allows you to use a calculator on every single question while the SAT includes a 25 minute no-calculator section with 20 questions.

Finally, the ACT math test is all multiple choice while the SAT math sections are 80% multiple choice and 20% grid ins. Grid-ins mean you will have to calculate and offer your own answers.


The ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete without the essay, and 3 hours and 35 minutes with the essay. The SAT takes 3 hours to complete without the essay, and 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay. As a result, one of the major differences between the ACT and SAT is time pressure.

While plenty of students run out of time on the SAT, the vast majority of students struggle to finish at least one of the ACT sections within the time limit. Across sections, you will have an average of 50 seconds per question on the ACT and 1 minute and 10 seconds per question on the new SAT. However, because the questions are different, SAT questions may take you longer to sift through so the differences may be moot.


On the ACT essay, you’ll be asked to evaluate different perspectives on a debatable issue and present your own side. The SAT essay will require you to read a 650-700 word passage; then, write an essay explaining how the author builds his or her argument. If you excel at debating or coming up with your own examples, the ACT may be better suited for you; however, if you are better at critical thinking and analysis, and evaluating readings, then the SAT essay suits you.

Final Thoughts

The list above are just a few of the differences to consider when choosing SAT or ACT. If you need help figuring out which test is better suited for you, make sure to reach out to an Empowerly counselor. Empowerly college counselors can assess your strengths, look at your background ,and guide you towards which test to take. The Empowerly community can also connect you to the best test prep recommendations, and more, to help your application shine.

Questions? Let us know!