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The ACT vs. the SAT

Sometimes the stain of being runner-up can stick for longer than warranted. That’s why it’s worth saying again: the ACT is no longer a neglected stepchild in the world of standardized tests and college admissions. As a New York Times article reported a year ago, the ACT surpassed the SAT in popularity in 2012, in terms of the number of students taking each test.


But the article is also quick to point to an unsurprising explanation: the SAT is not “losing customers;” instead, more students than ever are taking both tests. The trend should not be viewed so much as a victory for the ACT as it should be an unfortunate complication and amplification, for many, of an already stressful process.


That’s why I’ve titled this post “The ACT vs. the SAT.” Choose between them. Deciding to take both tests may in some cases be a way of avoiding the difficult decision between them. A decision always looks hard when neither option is attractive, but there are some clear and simple differences between the two.


Science section* No science section
Test more advanced math, including trigonometry No trigonometry
Vocabulary not so important Vocabulary is very important**
4 larger multiple choice sections 10 shorter multiple choice sections
Straightforward questions Confusing questions

*The ACT Science section does not test scientific knowledge so much as it tests reading skills in a scientific context, as well as simple interpretation of graphs/data.

**Vocabulary—at least the obscure variety—is supposed to become less important on the new SAT, debuting in the Spring of 2016.


You can get some idea of which you might like better based on these differences—if you really hate science then maybe go with the SAT. However, in order to make the best choice possible you should take both tests as practice exams. Done under the right conditions—as close as possible to those of a real proctored test—one practice exam of each test will give you a good idea of which one is right for you.


Taking both in practice will give you a good idea of which one feels better. It’s all well and good to know that the SAT has a larger number of shorter sections, but you won’t know if you like the arrangement until you actually try it. Listen to your instincts, and pick whichever test speaks to you. In other words, try to have fun.

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