ACT or SAT, which is better for ME? BrightBrain’s Take

A 2-Minute Read:


General Differences We’ve Noticed

With the latest changes to the SAT in 2016 the two tests are more alike than ever, but key differences still remain.  The most obvious difference is the organization of the test themselves.

The SAT contains three sections, the Reading test, which tests reading comprehension and critical thinking, the Writing and Language test, which covers command and use of the English language, and the Math test, which comes in a calculator and non-calculator portion and adds a “free response” section.  

The ACT, on the other hand, has four discrete tests.  It contains similar English, Math, and Reading tests, but also includes a fourth section, the Science test.  Despite being labeled a Science test, in function it is an extension of the Reading test.

Because there are fewer questions overall on the SAT, Math questions in particular weigh significantly more towards your overall score compared to the ACT’s Math questions.

Other key differences lie in the organization of specific tests.  The Math section of the SAT is not only split into separate calculator and non-calculator portions, but the difficulty of the questions is also more randomly distributed.  It is entirely possible to get a simple algebra question right next to a trigonometry question, all within the first three questions of the test. This makes good time-management in the Math section more difficult, and makes the Math test overall harder to gameplan for.

The SAT Math also might contain an additional “experimental section,” or a section that is not scored, but used to test out possible questions for future tests. This extra section can be either a Writing, Reading, or Math section.

The ACT presents Math questions in gradually increasing difficulty, and a calculator can be used for the entire test.  The first half of the test will be markedly easier than the second, and this predictability makes the test both easier to manage time-wise, and to gameplan for.  


Recent Changes

Both tests have undergone changes and updates in the past decade, to try and reflect the changing nature of what institutions of higher learning want in prospective students.  

The SAT has changed more between the two tests, undergoing a scaling change (from 2400 back down to 1600), and a shift in how questions are worded in the Writing and Language Test.

The ACT on the other hand, made changes in their Reading Test.  In the past, the test contained four different passages covering four different subjects.  Now, the ACT has one of the last three passages randomly split into an A and a B portion, effectively turning that specific subject passage into a comparative section.

Which is Better For You?

Both tests have their merits.  General advice has been that if you feel more confident in your Math skills and abilities, the SAT may be the better test for you. It’s generally believed that the ACT is better suited to you if you feel particularly strong in English/Reading, or struggle with Math. Because the additional Science section is essentially a Reading test as well, strong Reading comprehension and grammar skills will help you score better overall.

But in our experience, even these can vary. Ultimately every student is different, and there are big psychological factors to think about. Some students may like frequent breaks and more time per question that the SAT offers. Others might also like that having the Math split into different sections lets them “reset” their brains for the next one. Still, others like the predictability of the ACT Math. The best predictor for success and fit is to take a practice version of each test, and see which format appeals to you most.

-Chris Padeo


Find sample tests for each below:

Official ACT Practice Test #1572CPRE

Official SAT Practice Test #1

Robert Jamal Fedalizo