Which College Entry Exam to Take: The ACT or SAT?

by Tina Ann
Which College Entry Exam to Take - The ACT or SAT?

How to Decide If You Should Take the ACT or SAT for Entry into College

Prior to the SAT changing in 2016, the College Exams ACT and SAT were markedly different tests.  As a result, many students who completely struggled with one test were able to do exceptionally well on the other.  

Perhaps to be more competitive with the ACT’s burgeoning popularity, the SAT made many changes in 2016, including: eliminating the guessing penalty, making the essay optional, and getting rid of those pesky sentence completions detested by countless students (who wants to spend their summer memorizing a list of hundreds of vocabulary words?).  

With the College Exam (SAT) now more closely mirroring the ACT, the question of which test to take has become more nuanced. Since the essay portion of both exams is now optional, the essay should not be a determining factor when deciding which test to take. Rather, the best way to determine which exam is best for your teenager is to consider the key differences between the other sections in the tests:

Which Math Section is Best?

SAT Math: The SAT Math is a total of 80 minutes and 58 questions, broken into 2 sections. This allows approximately 83 seconds per question. 13 of the total questions are grid-in questions.  This test has a large focus on word problems and data analysis, and not a great deal of geometry or trigonometry. Notably, this test does give you some math formulas, but requires you to do an entire section without a calculator. Additionally, the SAT Math section has 4 answer choices per question.

ACT Math: The ACT Math is a total of 60 questions in 60 minutes, giving you an average of 60 seconds per question (less time per question than the Math SAT). The ACT Math has a much higher percentage of geometry and trigonometry questions. Students are not given any formulas to use. Students can have their calculators for the entire test and do not have to complete any grid-in questions. On the ACT, there are 5 answer choices for all math questions.

MATH Total Time # Of Questions Time Per Q Grid On Qs Formula Provided Calculator # of Answer Choices
SAT  80 mins 58 1 minute 23 seconds 13 Y 1 section no Calculator  4
ACT 60 mins 60 1 minute 0 N Y 5


Students who feel lost, anxious or are unsure without their calculators may not fare well on the SAT. Many students also get nervous with the grid-in’s on the SAT, which comprise a good portion of the questions. However, students who like word problems and are not fans of geometry may prefer the SAT.  

Students who prefer to have their calculators at all times will probably feel more comfortable and do better on the ACT, as will students who are fairly comfortable with geometry and would prefer to have less word problems and data analysis.  Students who excel at trigonometry and want to earn points there would probably also prefer the ACT.  

Which Reading Section is Best?

SAT Reading: The SAT Reading is broken into 65 minutes for 52 questions, allowing approximately 75 seconds per question. The SAT Reading has 5 passages and many evidence-based questions, requiring you to find evidence in a passage to support a previous answer or make a reasonable conclusion. The SAT Reading has a high amount of line reference questions, directing you to where in the passage to find the answer. The SAT Reading has questions that incorporate graphs, charts, and tables.

ACT Reading: The ACT Reading provides 35 minutes for 40 questions, allowing approximately 52 seconds per question.  There are 4 passages. The ACT does not focus on evidence-based questions and has far fewer questions with line references.  There are no graphs, charts, or tables.    

Reading Total Time # of Qs Time Per Q # of Passages Graphs/Charts/


SAT 65 mins 52 1 min 15 seconds 5 Y
ACT 35 mins 40 less than 1 min 4 N


Students who want their Reading scores to be based purely on reading and not worrying about graphs, charts, or tables would prefer the ACT. Students who struggle with evidence-based questions would prefer the ACT.  

Students who struggle with reading comprehension and finding answers within passages may prefer all the line references provided by the SAT questions.  

English on the ACT or Writing and Language on the SAT?

SAT Writing and Language: This section provides 35 minutes for 44 questions, allowing approximately 48 seconds per question. The SAT also includes passages accompanied by some sort of informational graphic or chart.  

ACT English: This section provides 45 minutes for 75 questions, allowing approximately 36 seconds to answer a question.  

English/Writing Total Time # of Qs Time Per Q Graphic/Chart
ACT 35 mins 44 48 seconds Y
SAT 45 mins 75 36 seconds N


The sections are largely similar, testing concepts such as grammar and writing style. Students who do not want to deal with any sort of charts or graphics while working through a writing section would prefer the ACT. Students who prefer more time per question would prefer the SAT.

Which Science Section is Best?

SAT:  The SAT does not have a science section.  

ACT Science: The ACT Science section provides students with 35 minutes to complete 40 science questions, allowing about 52 seconds per question. The Science section is filled with passages, charts, tables, and graphs.  Notably, the ACT Science questions are designed to be answered primarily based on the information provided within the section itself. There is hardly any outside knowledge required. Students without strong science backgrounds can still do well on the science section, provided they have strong reading comprehension and data analysis skills.


Students who are totally overwhelmed with Science related topics will probably fare better on the SAT but should realize that they will not totally be able to escape the topic of science and data analysis just because they choose the SAT.  Remember, there is a Science passage within the SAT Reading section, and the test is filled with charts, graphs, and tables. 

Students who either excel in science or who simply have decent reading comprehension and data analysis skills should do well on the ACT Science section.  

Take a Sample ACT and SAT and Then Compare 

Finally, if you are unsure of your teenager’s current strengths and weaknesses, then have your student try a sample test of both the ACT and the SAT.  See how your student feels and which test best emphasizes his or her strengths. Only after all of this, can you then make a truly informed decision.

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