The SAT vs. the ACT

The SAT vs. the ACT

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A new version of the SAT launched in March of 2016, therefore, the article below is now outdated. recently published a comprehensive guide to help students choose between the SAT and the ACT. Click on the following link to read the article: ACT vs SAT: Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Test.

In today's post, our friends at Magoosh compare all aspects of the SAT & the ACT to help you make an informed decision on which test is right for you.

If you are planning to apply to college or university in the United States, you may be wondering which of the two accepted college admissions tests--the SAT or the ACT--is right for you. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that you do have an option! Every 4-year U.S. college or university that requires test scores for admissions accepts either the SAT or the ACT. Although the SAT is currently far more popular amongst international applicants, there is not necessarily a good reason for this. In the United States, by contrast, these two tests are equally popular amongst college hopefuls. In fact, for the past four years, slightly more U.S. students have taken the ACT than have taken the SAT.  

One test is not necessarily better than the other, but they are very different exams. Students often find that one test suits their strengths more than the alternative. So it’s important for you to fully explore your options before you commit to either the SAT or the ACT.  This post compares the format and content of the two tests and also discusses some special considerations for international applicants making this all-important SAT vs ACT decision. 

Important note: The SAT is changing beginning with the March 2016 test. So, throughout this post, we’ll compare the ACT to both the current SAT and the future SAT. 



The ACT and the current SAT differ in a couple of pretty important ways as far as content. The ACT covers some higher-level math concepts, including trigonometry, that the SAT does not (although the redesigned SAT launching in March 2016 will include trig questions). In addition, one of the biggest differences between the ACT and the SAT is the ACT’s inclusion of a Science test. Although the ACT Science test only requires rudimentary science knowledge (it is more about interpreting data on tables and figures and analyzing trends), it may be more appealing to students targeting STEM fields or simply those who feel more comfortable in math and science.

The current SAT also tests vocabulary directly—and a whole lot of it—including some pretty uncommon words, while the ACT only asks a small number of vocab questions on more common words. Nevertheless, the ACT, with its long reading passages, still requires a mastery of English. 

Most students report that the ACT seems more similar to the questions they see in school. In other words, it’s more curriculum-based. The SAT, by contrast, finds its roots in traditional intelligence tests. So although it has become and will become more curriculum-oriented with the redesigned SAT, the current SAT suits students who are strong in critical reasoning and enjoy logic games and puzzles. 

Important Considerations for International Applicants

Timing and English Reading Level

Many students consider the ACT to be a more time-pressured test, meaning it is more difficult to answer all of the questions in the time allowed. This is not surprising considering that not only does the ACT ask students to answer more questions in a shorter time period than the current SAT, but also it places a larger emphasis on reading on all of the sections of the test. The current SAT tends to ask more isolated questions; for example, asking students to correct the grammar in just one sentence. The ACT, however, asks grammar questions in the context of larger passages. Reading passages on the ACT are also significantly longer than on the current SAT, and there is more reading involved on the Math and Science sections as well.  If English is your second language, or you are not incredibly comfortable reading in English, this may be an important consideration for you. However, although the current SAT has shorter passages, they are often at a more difficult reading level with harder vocabulary. The new, redesigned SAT that will be launched in March 2016 is much more like the ACT in terms of the amount of reading it requires, which will help level the playing field between the tests in this area. 

Standardized Testing Requirements for International Students

It’s also important to realized that not all colleges and universities in the United States require standardized test scores for admission. You can find a list of schools that do not require test scores or have flexible testing requirements here. There are also some colleges and universities that do not require test scores from international students even if they do require test scores from American students. So if you are an international student struggling with these challenging tests, it is well worth your time to carefully check the international applicant requirements of institutions that interest you. 

Both the SAT and ACT are offered at numerous international testing centers, although the SAT can be found in more locations--it boasts over 1000 international test centers while the ACT has around 500. If you live more than 75 miles from a test center, though, you may be able to request to take the SAT or ACT closer to home: check the respective testing websites for more details on this option.  

If you are still unsure whether the SAT or ACT is better for you, I highly recommend that you take practice tests of both (under timed conditions) to help you make your decision. You can use this helpful conversion chart to compare your ACT and SAT practice tests scores and then move full steam ahead with preparing for the test that is best for you!


This post was written by Kristin Fracchia, resident ACT/SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on ACT prep, check out Magoosh’s high school blog