Which test should we take – SAT or ACT?

Which test should we take?

 This is probably the most common question I get.  We prepare students for both. We emphasize the SAT for two reasons.  First, around 80% of our students use their SAT score because it is far more susceptible to practice.  In most cases, practicing and learning the test can increase scores.  And preparing for the SAT makes the ACT seem “easier.” The ACT can seem more straightforward.

The principal reason we can’t be 100% certain which test a student will do better on is that we cannot precisely replicate the testing conditions so that we know how a student will react to the severe time constraints students encounter in taking the ACT.  We prepare the students here for both tests and coordinate the preparations.

There are differences in the two tests.  The structures of the two tests are described on the next pages.

The SAT was originally designed to be an aptitude test.  In more recent years, they have tried to describe it as an academic assessment and reasoning test.  But it still keeps aptitude elements in its questions.  Being aware of those elements and preparing for them is one of the keys to increasing SAT test scores.

The ACT claims it measures what it says is academic achievement.  It is more staightforward and is less “tricky” than the SAT. There are more questions on the ACT and less time to take it.  The ACT depends more on pacing and speed because it relies on time as a factor of difficulty.  The ACT may be a fairer test and friendlier because it asks questions that students are used to seeing, however certain elements of the ACT like the advanced math questions (trigonometry), some of the reading, and science section make it more difficult for substance.  The ACT is much more time pressured and is broken into fewer longer format content tests which require steady concentration.

 The two tests have different structures:


The test is divided into ten sections. You will have two writing skills sections, a 25 minute section and a 10 minute section.  You will have three verbal sections, two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section.  The test will also have three math sections, two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section.  The test will start with a 25 minute essay.  The sections will generally be organized like this:


24 Question Section (25 minutes)
8 Sentence Completion
16 Reading Comprehension

24 Question Section (25 minutes)
5 Sentence Completion
19 Reading Comprehension

19 Question Section (20 minutes)
6 Sentence Completion
13 Reading Comprehension


20 Question Section (25 minutes)
20 Multiple Choice Questions

18 Question Section (25 minutes)
8 Multiple Choice Questions
10 Student Produced Responses

16 Question Section (20 minutes)
16 Multiple Choice Questions


35 Question Section (25 minutes)
11 Improve the Sentence Questions
18 Identify the Error Questions
6   Improve the Paragraph Questions

14 Question Section (10 minutes)
14 Improve the Sentence Questions

ESSAY  (25 Minutes)

There will be a tenth section. It won’t be labeled as such but this will be an Experimental section. It won’t count for you or against you. The experimental section will manifest itself either as another 25 minute verbal section, or another 25 minute math section. We strongly suggest you just treat every section as a real one.


English Test
Content/skills                                  Percent                                          Questions
Usage/mechanics                               53%                                                    40
Punctuation                                         13%                                                     10
Grammar and usage                            16%                                                     12
Sentence structure                               24%                                                     18

Rhetorical skills                                 47%                                                    35
Strategy                                               16%                                                     12
Organization                                       15%                                                     11
Style                                                    16%                                                     12

Mathematics Test
Content                                           Percent                                           Questions
Pre-algebra                                          23%                                                     14
Elementary algebra                             17%                                                     10
Intermediate algebra                           15%                                                     9
Coordinate geometry                          15%                                                     9
Plane geometry                                   23%                                                     14
Trigonometry                                      7%                                                       4

Reading Test
Content                                           Percent                                            Questions
Humanities                                          25%                                                     10
Prose fiction                                        25%                                                     10
Social studies                                      25%                                                     10
Natural sciences                                 25%                                                     10

Science Test
Scientific content can be from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Earth/Space sciences.

Format                                           Percent                                Questions
Data representation                             38%                                         15
Research summaries                            45%                                         18
Conflicting viewpoints                         17%                                         7