SAT vs. ACT

Note: the SAT referred to in this article is the current version. For information on the 2016 relaunch, click here.

One of the most common questions we get at MTAT is what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

The short answer is that the SAT is trickier and involves more abstract thinking, while the ACT is more practical and down to earth. On the other hand, you have less time per question on the ACT. Neither test is necessarily easier than the other, though some students may perform better on one test than the other.

Several key differences:

  • On the SAT, you lose a quarter point for every missed question. The ACT has no penalty for missed questions.
  • The ACT has a science section; there’s nothing like it on the SAT.
  • SAT math is basic—algebra and geometry—but the questions are tricky. ACT math includes higher level concepts from trig and precalculus, but the questions are more straightforward.
  • Every SAT Critical Reading section has five to eight fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, the last two or three of which are very difficult. The ACT Reading section may have one or two vocabulary-in-context questions, and they are usually very easy.


How do you know which test is right for you? Simple: take one of each and see which you you do better on. You can download a free copy of each test with grading instructions here and here.

If you live in the area, you can also sign up for a free practice test at one of our Austin locations. Taking a practice test in a realistic setting is ideal, but if you have to take it at home, just be sure to work in a quiet, distraction-free environment. (Turn off the phone!) And if you qualify for accommodations (like extra time), be sure to use them when you practice!

PLEASE NOTE: Many students will bomb the ACT Science section the first time they take it. With practice, it gets much easier.

Don’t just compare the scores; ask yourself which test would be easier to master with practice. Hardly anyone is going to get a good score without doing quite a bit of studying, so ask yourself which test you would rather spend time with. If you did better on the SAT but thought the ACT was more fun (or less intolerable), then you’ll probably be better off with the ACT in the long run.

I STRONGLY ADVISE AGAINST studying for both tests simultaneously. The strategies are different. For example, there’s no guessing penalty on the ACT, so you should fill in every single bubble. But that strategy could be disastrous on the SAT. So if you’re going to take both tests, you should get one out of the way before you start studying for the other one.

Just about any college will accept either test, but you should always check. This information should be in any college website’s FAQ, but if not, just email or call the admissions office.

Once you’ve decided on a test, get the official guide. The SAT Guide comes with 10 practice tests. The ACT Guide has only five practice tests, but it also has answer explanations. (Explanations for the problems in the SAT Guide can be found on the College Board website). Of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in the Austin area, you can sign up for one of our classes, and we’ll throw in the guide for free.

Whichever test you choose, practice is key. So take as many practice tests as possible. If you use up all the tests in your guide and need more, we’ve got you covered. Just contact us.

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