SAT Versus ACT

Which Test Should I Take?

Which Test Should I Take, the SAT or ACT?

The short answer is that you should take whichever test(s) the colleges to which you’re applying require. If one of your top choice schools only accepts the SAT, then you should take the SAT, and vice versa. With that said, all 4-year universities now universally accept the ACT, so the choice between SAT and ACT is up to you. So let’s consider the two options side by side.



So which test should I take? Let’s look at three factors — the time crunch, the math section and the science section.


The ACT requires you to answer far more questions in a given amount of time, so if test anxiety is an issue for you, you may be better off taking the SAT which allots more time per question. Note, however, that SAT questions can at times be more challenging, necessitating the greater amount of time.


Geometry and Trigonometry make up to one-third of the ACT math questions, whereas they make up far less of the SAT math section. So, if geometry and trigonometry are your math subjects of choice, the ACT may be the right choice for you. The ACT however does not provide mathematical formulas, unlike the SAT, so be sure to memorize those geometric equations.


If science is your weakness, which for Rocket Girls it isn’t, then the SAT, without a science section, is the way to go. If you think you’ll shine on the science section, then take the ACT. Of course, keep in mind that the new SAT now includes two scientific/technical passages in its Reading Section.

In short, it doesn’t really matter which of the two tests you take, as long as the schools for which you’re applying accept both. You may want to take both and see which one you score better on. Then, focus your preparations on improving your score on that test.

Click here to learn more about the new SAT

Click here to learn more about the ACT


An Overview

The ACT is now universally accepted by all four-year universities, giving you the option of taking it in place of the SAT. The ACT consists of four sections — English, Math, Reading and Science — and an optional essay. It is scored on a scale of 1-36.

The test takes 2 hours and 55 minutes, plus an optional 40 minutes if you decide to write the essay.

Each section can be broken down as follows:

English - 75 questions in 45 minutes

Math - 60 questions in 60 minutes

Reading - 40 questions in 35 minutes

Science - 40 questions in 35 minutes

Optional Essay - 40 minutes

Let’s look more closely at each of the above sections.

ACT English

The English sections consists of 40 usage and mechanics questions and 35 rhetorical skills questions. Usage and mechanics questions focus on sentence structure, grammar and punctuation. Most of the questions follow this format: You are given a passage in which a word, phrase or sentence is underlined. You are given four choices, three options with which to replace the underlined passage, and the fourth option to leave the underlined passage alone.

The rhetorical skills questions assess reading and writing strategy, organization and style. You are given questions on adding, revising and/or deleting sentences, how a sentence fits into the overall structure of a passage, transitional phrases and writing style. Here’s an example of a rhetorical skills question provided by the ACT (This passage was taken from ACT’s publication Preparing for the SAT, downloadable here).



68. At this point, the writer is considering adding the following true statement:

To meet their expectations, Jones crafted her speech, dress, and mannerisms based on cultural notions of motherhood.

Should the writer make this addition here?

F. Yes, because it highlights the contrast between Jones’s personal style and her audiences’.

G. Yes, because it adds details about what types of changes Jones made to create her public persona.

H. No, because it detracts from the focus of the paragraph by introducing unrelated details.

I. No, because it doesn’t indicate the effect Jones’s public persona had on audiences.

(By the way, the correct answer is G).

ACT Math

You are given 60 minutes to complete 60 math questions, but unlike the SAT, you may use your calculator throughout. There are restrictions on which calculators you may bring, so be sure to familiarize yourself with these before test day here.

The ACT contains far more questions on geometry and trigonometry than the SAT, up to one-third of all math questions, but you have to memorize the formulas going in, because unlike the SAT, the ACT does not provide you with the formulas.

ACT Reading

The ACT Reading section contains 4 passages with 10 questions each. You are expected to read the passages and answer the related questions at a rate of 0.875 minutes per question (40 questions in 35 minutes). Speed is crucial. The questions focus more on reading comprehension than analysis. And, the questions are not in chronological order as they are on the SAT, so you need to fish through the entire passage to find specific details.

ACT Science

The ACT Science Reasoning Test has no equivalent on the SAT, though the latter has incorporated two science passages into its reading comprehension section. The ACT Science includes seven passages with 40 questions, all to be completed in 35 minutes. The questions assess skill in analyzing text, graphs and charts in the context of scientific reasoning. Though students often believe you need to know science in order to answer these questions, it’s not true. Rather, this section assesses your reading comprehension of technical information. There are at most 1-2 questions per exam that might require you to know something from your middle-school science days. Of course, competence in science, though not a requirement, doesn’t hurt. And, with Rocket Girls, scientific competence is a given.

ACT Essay

The ACT Essay asks you to analyze three different perspectives on an issue. You are then asked to argue your own position on the issue, and provide your own examples. The new SAT no longer asks for your stance on an issue.

For more information on the ACT, visit ACT’s website here.

The New SAT

The new SAT was first administered in March 2016. The New SAT returns to the old SAT scoring between 400 - 1600. There is no wrong-answer penalty, and the number of answer choices has been reduced from 5 to 4. This means that your chances of choosing the right answer have increased from 20% to 25%.

The new SAT has two sections with an optional essay section. The two sections are Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.

The test takes 3 hours without the essay, and 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay.

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section contains the following subsections:

Reading - 52 questions in 65 minutes
Writing and Language - 45 questions in 35 minutes

The Math Section contains the following two subsections:

Math - 20 questions in 25 minutes without calculator
Math - 38 questions in 55 minutes with calculator

Essay (Optional) - 50 minutes

The good news is that the penalty for wrong answers has been eliminated, so (educated) guess away!

Let’s look at the sections in more detail.

Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section

The Reading Test consists of five passages, including some readings from classic texts, and science. Regarding the latter, two of the five passages will cover scientific topics with charts and figures, emulating the ACT Science section.

Each of the five passages will be somewhat lengthy as the short reading passages have been eliminated.

The reading passages are more complex than they used to be, and a new type of question asks you to find appropriate evidence within the passage to support your answer to previous questions.

SAT reading questions are still in chronological order to the passage, making it easier than in the ACT to find the corresponding text passages.

The Writing and Language Test no longer includes sentence completion, choosing the best word to complete a sentence. Rather, vocabulary questions will be asked in the context of supplied reading passages. In this way, SAT will be replacing its emphasis on sheer breadth of vocabulary to depth of vocabulary in context. Grammar similarly will be assessed in the context of reading.

The Math Section

The Math Section consists of two tests, one without a calculator and one with a calculator. As has always been the case with the SAT, there is still a heavy emphasis on algebra. New data analysis questions have been added, making up approximately one-third of the test, which include ratios, percentages and understanding graphs and charts.
There are only 6 questions on geometry and trigonometry.

The Math section includes 13 grid-in questions, in which the student bubbles in her own answer without the convenience of multiple choice.

The Essay

The essay is optional, but you should sit for it if any of your top-choice colleges either requires it or recommends it (”recommends” is code language for “do it.”)

You have 50 minutes for the essay section in which you are asked to analyze an argumentative essay. You are graded on the essay on three skills — reading, analysis and writing itself.