SAT or ACT? What are the Differences and Which is the Best Test to Take?

The first thing to do is look at the favored tests for your colleges of choice. If you see a school prefers one test over the other, your decision is easy.

If the colleges don’t specify which test they prefer, the decision SAT vs. ACT is still easy. Neither test is superior to the other. And, to tell you the truth say college advisors at International College Counselors, most colleges don’t prefer one over the other.

The trick is to figure out which one is best suited to your standardized testing strengths, recommend the expert college advisors at International College Counselors.

Each test emphasizes different test taking skills and tests your familiarity in different subjects.


• Designed to evaluate your overall educational development and your ability to complete college-level work.
• Has four multiple-choice subject tests covering English, Math, Reading, and Science. Each content area is approached in one big chunk, with the optional Writing Test at the end.
• Optional 30-minute writing test is designed to measure your skill in planning and writing a short essay. If you opt to take it, the additional scores will be listed separately.
• 215 questions
• You’ll have 2 hours and 55 minutes, not including breaks or the 30 minute optional essay. This makes the test faster paced.
• There is no penalty for incorrect answers, only correct responses count. So there is no penalty for guessing.
• Subject test scores (ranging from 1 to 36) are determined by correct answers. The four areas are then averaged together to come up with your overall, or composite, score.
• The ACT Math section requires you to have a broader range of knowledge than the SAT. For example, on this test there’s a little trigonometry, in addition to the algebra and geometry. That said, the ACT Math section is not necessarily harder, since many students find the questions to be more direct.
• Focuses more on grammar and punctuation.
• Science section is logical reasoning based on data and scientific terms, not based on classroom science.
• ACT Reading asks questions that rely more on retrieving information from the text.
• ACT questions are said to be more straightforward and easier to understand on a first read than those on the SAT. The ACT is also more intuitive and a better measure of what a student has learned in school.


• Designed to evaluate your general thinking and problem-solving abilities.
• Content areas (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing) are broken up into ten sections, with the required essay at the beginning. Keep in mind, this means you will be moving back and forth between different content areas.
• Required 25-minute essay.
• 170 questions
• You’ll have 3 hours and 45 minutes with three short breaks.
• Test scores range from 600 to 2400, combining test results from three 800-point sections.
• Slight penalty for wrong answers on the multiple choice questions.
• Unlike the ACT, the SAT has a part in the Math section where you’ll be required produce your answers.
• SAT Critical Reading relies more on prediction, inference, etc.
• Favors those who are very strong in vocabulary. If you aren’t an ardent wordsmith and English is not your first language, you may do better on the ACT.
• “The SAT’s style–tricked-up, puzzle-like, and logic-oriented–makes it a more teachable test because there are more test-specific concepts to teach. To varying extents, the tricks can be learned and the puzzles simplified. Once students become familiar with them, the test unwraps itself.” (New York Times)

Something to Consider

Almost all competitive colleges “cherry-pick” SAT sub-scores, say the expert college counselors at International College Counselors, meaning they consider the best combination of Math, Critical Reading and Writing earned on different dates. Very few colleges do this with the four ACT sub-scores.

Some Additional Thoughts

Take practice tests to see which test you prefer.

If the colleges you’re interested in accept scores from both the SAT and the ACT, consider taking both tests to see which one you perform better on.

Start studying for the tests as early as possible. Both the SAT and the ACT are not tests you can wait until the last minute to study for.

For a recommendation on a SAT or ACT tutor or to contact an expert college counselor, please call 954-414-9986 or email

This year, college advisors at International College Counselors helped more than 200 students find, apply to and gain acceptance into the college of their dreams. The expert college counselors at International College Counselors are dedicated to helping students and their families successfully navigate the college application process.

International College Counselors has offices in White Plains, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Miami Beach, Florida; Miami, Florida; Coral Gables, Florida; Palm Beach, Florida; Boca Raton, Florida; Medellin, Columbia and Caracas, Venezuela.

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International College Counselors
3107 Stirling Road, Suite 208
Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33312 USA
(954) 414-9986

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