SAT or ACT? How to Decide

Tips include exploring the differences between the tests, taking practice tests for each, and making a test preparation plan.
Students taking a test

One of the many decisions students must make during their college application process is whether to take the SAT® or the ACT®. Making this decision doesn't need to be difficult, as long as families are willing to put in the time to make a smart, informed, data-driven decision.

Do colleges accept both tests?

Yes. All colleges that accept and/or require standardized test scores will accept either the SAT or the ACT and do not express a preference for one test or the other.

What are the differences between the two tests?

In many ways the SAT and ACT are similar. They are both (mostly) multiple-choice tests that assess students' math ability, knowledge of grammar and writing conventions, and literacy skills. The SAT is known for being 'trickier' in that it includes more challenging texts and word problems, and in many cases the wrong answers are very close to being correct, save for some small flaw. The ACT, on the other hand, is known for being somewhat more straightforward, but also much more time-constrained, such that many students have to rush and may not be able to finish most sections. The ACT also includes a science section, though this section is really testing data literacy and students' ability to read charts and graphs. A strong science background is not necessary in order for a student to do well in the science section of the ACT.

So how do I decide which test to take?

The first and most important step for students to take is to complete a full-length practice SAT and a full-length practice ACT. This investment of time up front will ultimately save students a lot of time down the line, while providing the peace of mind that comes with knowing you've made the right choice.

Do I really have to do a full practice test?

To be certain? Yes. There are 'hybrid' tests that purport to determine which test a student should take based on a much smaller set of questions. While these tests may guide some students to the right test for them, they do not capture the full experience of either test, and the data set they provide is less reliable and misses some important information that helps a student or tutor to determine what content and strategies to prioritize.

Where do I find a practice test?

Both the College Board®, who administers the SAT, and the ACT provide free full-length practice tests online. A student can download an SAT (we recommend using test 2) and an ACT (for which there is just one option), print them out, and complete the tests at home. Ideally a parent or guardian can 'proctor' the test by keeping the time for each section. For the best approximation of the Test Day experience, a student can take free diagnostic tests with Open Door Education, who will score the student's test and provide a detailed score report for each test.

I took the diagnostic tests. Now what?

There are two important factors to consider: the scores themselves, and the student's subjective experience of each test. 

A simple comparison of the scores can be done using a conversion chart such as this one. In many cases there is a clear discrepancy between the results, and it is immediately clear which test the student should take. There are occasional exceptions, but most students should take the test on which they naturally score higher to begin with. If a student is in the 'gray zone,' it is important to take a closer look at their sectional scores, and it may be wise to enlist the guidance of an expert who understands the subtleties of each section.

It is also important to consider which test a student naturally prefers. Some students find that they naturally gravitate to or are particularly uncomfortable with one test or the other. Some of the most common factors that students cite include the challenging pacing of the ACT, the variety of question structures on the SAT, and the focus on different math content areas on each test. In our experience, when a student has a strong feeling about which test he or she would prefer to take, it is wise to follow the student's lead and pursue that test.

Okay, I picked a test. How should I prepare?

Whether a student is self-studying, taking a class, or working with a tutor, there are five essential ingredients to any test preparation plan:

1. Use quality materials

There is no substitute for official SAT and ACT tests, and these tests are widely available online and in practice books. Third-party materials can be beneficial, but recent official tests are an essential tool for any student preparing for testing

2. Practice what is difficult

Too often students spend their time working through full sections, which is still worthwhile, but the real progress is made when students identify what content areas, question categories, and passage types are most challenging for them and focus their attention on these opportunities for growth

3. Understand your mistakes

Doing a set of practice problems is just the beginning. After completing each set of questions, students should check their answers and then return to the questions they missed, working to identify what they should have done differently in order to correctly answer each question.

4. Periodically take full practice tests

The SAT and ACT are both tests of endurance, and students must build that endurance by completing a few full-length tests that prepare them for the marathon of Test Day.

5. Ask for help

There are wonderful resources, many of them free, that can help students to prepare for the SAT and ACT. Friends, teachers, tutors, and reputable sources on the internet can each be a wealth of information, strategies, and guidance. You are not the first person to take the SAT or ACT, and you do not have to go it alone.

At Open Door Education we provide smart, patient, individualized academic and test preparation tutoring for students in middle school and high school. To learn more, or to schedule free diagnostic testing and a consultation, visit us online at