ACT vs. SAT: Which Test is Right for Your Teen?

The ACT remains, as it has since 2010, the more popular of the two standardized college entrance exams. The recently redesigned SAT, however, appears to be making inroads and may, for some students, be the better test. While 82 percent of high school students feel the revised SAT is fair, 94 percent say they would recommend the ACT, according to a poll by Magoosh, a national online test-prep service.

Despite that purported preference, teens have not forgone the SAT. Of students in the class of 2017, about 1.7 million took the new SAT and 2 million took the ACT. “I believe the SAT stands a good chance of having kids warm up to it,” says Bhavin Parikh, Magoosh’s CEO and founder.

Today’s SAT more closely resembles the ACT, which means that the test is designed to reflect classroom learning rather than test preparation, says Matt Mangelsen, program director at Capital Educators. “That’s actually advantageous to the student,” he says. “You used to have separate tracks in preparing for the tests, now, for the most part, you can prepare simultaneously for both.”

Deciding which test is best for an individual student is as much an art as it is a science. Some college test-prep professionals believe there is a way to predict preference, others think experience with both is essential. Understanding the differences between the two tests can inform a student’s decision.

Both tests take roughly three hours to complete, not counting the optional essay. The ACT has four sections: English, reading, math and science. The SAT has three sections: English, reading and math. So timing varies for each section. For example:





45 minutes

75 questions

35 minutes

44 questions


35 minutes

40 questions

65 minutes

52 questions


60 minutes

60 questions

80 minutes

58 questions


35 minutes

40 questions


“Time is a consideration,” says Parikh. “If a student tends to struggle with time and not finish tests, the SAT might be a better choice,” he says. Overall, across sections, students have an average of 50 seconds per question on the ACT and 70 seconds per question on the SAT, according to the Magoosh website.

Time made a difference in Cameron Wheeden’s success on the SAT. “I felt more rushed with the ACT,” says the Walter Johnson High School (WJHS) senior. “I don’t work well under pressure and found that with the ACT I ran out of time and ended up randomly bubbling in answers. With the SAT, I had more time to work, even though the questions were a bit harder.”

The reverse was true for WJHS senior Ryan Cutler who, after taking the PSAT in 10th and 11th grades, opted for the ACT. “With the PSAT, and I suppose the SAT, you have more time because the questions are more difficult and tedious. I found the ACT was more straightforward and gave me the right amount of time.”

Confidence in and enjoyment of certain academic subjects also are factor in choosing which test to take. “Generally students who love and do well in science may find the ACT a better fit,” says Parikh.

Only the ACT offers a section exclusively dedicated to science. That was important to Cutler. “The ACT was more subject oriented and tied to the curriculum, which was beneficial to me. I felt as though the science section played to my academic strengths,” he says.

The ACT also allows the use of a calculator for all math problems, whereas the SAT has two math sections, only one of which permits a calculator. “Students who love mental math and trick problems may prefer the SAT, but those who prefer straightforward math with a calculator may be better off with the ACT,” says Parikh.

“Students who are avid readers tend to do better on the SAT,” says Parikh. Because of the way the ACT is scored, “if a student is not strong in reading he can mask it a bit more on the ACT.”

The scoring of both tests, and the way colleges approach those scores, may also influence a student’s decision as to whether to take the ACT or SAT. Many schools will super score the SAT but not the ACT. That means they take the highest SAT math and reading scores, even if the tests were taken on different days. “The reluctance of schools to super score the ACT has to do with the fact that there are four scores as opposed to two for the SAT,” says Mangelsen.

That is part of the reason Bradford Clarkson, a WJHS senior, opted to take the SAT a second time rather than switch to the ACT. Having scored well on math, his goal was to improve his English/reading score. He was able to do so without worrying about his math score.

Based on anecdotal evidence, it appears that many students choose one test and stick with it, which is not what test-prep services suggest. The recommendation is that students take both the ACT and the SAT and, based on the results, take one of the tests a second time. “There’s no disadvantage to taking both,” says Mangelsen, as students do not have to report every score to a college. There is, however, a point of diminishing returns, he noted. That often comes after taking any combination of the ACT and SAT more than three times.

Repeated test taking can create stress and reduce a student’s performance, which Wheeden can attest to. “While I’m happy with the way things turned out, if I could change anything it would have been to focus on one test, the SAT, and I would have saved myself the stress,” he says.

Special needs students face additional considerations. “The type of accommodations offered for the ACT and SAT vary,” according to Jody Bleiberg, a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethesda, MD. While there are a number of hoops to jump through, Bleiberg says she has found that both testing bodies “want to do the right thing by students as long as they are legally protected.”

For Ethan Hughes, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, the ACT was a better indicator of his academic abilities than the SAT. That’s because the ACT allowed him to take each of the four sections on a different day and in a private setting. “With the SAT I was in a classroom with a small number of other students and had to wait for everyone to finish before I could continue. It was difficult given that, even though I have extended time, I tend to go faster. The result was that my SAT score was worse than my PSAT,” he says.

While there is no crystal ball that can determine with 100 percent accuracy which test a student should take, Parikh has posted a short survey on the Magoosh website that, based on a student’s responses, provides some insight into which test might be a better fit.

No matter which test a student opts to take, Mangelsen believes it’s important to maintain some perspective. “The ACT and SAT are just one of several factors a school considers in deciding whether to admit a student. Yes, they are important. But they are not the sole determinant,” he says.