Should I Take the SAT, ACT, or Both?

A growing number of students are not choosing between the SAT or the ACT, instead deciding to take both. Is this something I should consider? Or is it just a college admissions fad?


It’s crazy to me that some students ask if they should take both the ACT and SAT. I never would have thought that admissions would get to be so competitive that applicants would have to go to these extreme measures to try to distinguish themselves, and to a certain extent, this trend shines a light on the admissions process’ overreliance on standardized test scores and the unfair advantages that it affords students whose families can afford the tutors, test prep classes, and resources to score higher on the SAT or ACT. 

I tell the vast majority of students applying to college that they would be wasting their time preparing for two different standardized tests. If you’ve already received your target score for one test, your time can be better spent developing your extracurriculars or preparing your application essays. But at the same time, I can’t say that there’s NO value in taking both exams. There’s a growing number of students applying to competitive schools that submit both scores to give admissions officers more information. In 2017, some top universities like MIT, Harvard, and Caltech reported that more than 20% of their incoming freshman classes had submitted both exams. This is not a negligible number of students, and I can understand an admissions officer’s justifications for rewarding this trend.

“I tell the vast majority of students applying to college that they would be wasting their time preparing for two different standardized tests”

First off, both the SAT and ACT exams have had a number of security issues in the last handful of years. Reports of tests administered in Asia being reused in the US or answers just flat out leaking
ahead of time have plagued both exams, and admissions officers have a reason to be wary of accepting reported test scores at face value. If a student is only reporting a single test score and is being compared to another student that has submitted similar test scores for both the ACT/SAT, the extra data can better corroborate the validity of the second student. If a student is  international and comes from a country like China or South Korea, even more reason to want to corroborate your scores with more data, as hyper-competitive admissions pools are known
to go to extreme lengths for an Ivy League+ acceptance. Even in the US, this year’s admissions scandal unearthed illicit tactics that some parents and consultants will use to illegally boost a student’s test score. We know that cheating happens and part of an admissions officers’ job is to sniff it out.

The likelihood of a student or their family being able to pull off two illegal scores on two different exams seems extremely low, so again, I do believe that providing this extra data can be helpful for some students. Any international students from competitive applicant pools applying to top 20 schools could probably benefit from taking both tests. Or maybe you’re a student who messed up your GPA freshman year and you’re worried that your high test score looks like an outlier when compared to your transcript. But again, most students don’t fall under these umbrellas and therefore, don’t need to worry about corroborating their scores.

History of the SAT vs ACT

College decision making image

Traditional advice here has dictated that you go with the test that’s been around the block and has been accepted as the default college admissions exams for decades: the SAT. It’s a known commodity and by looking at the data, you can see that historically, the most successful students have preferred the SAT exam to the ACT.

But in 2012, this assumption was challenged when the ACT actually overtook the SAT as the most widely administered college preparatory exam in the US. Criticisms of the SAT and advocacy of the ACT being a more fair exam propelled the ACT as the new king of testing, compelling the College Board to restructure the SAT exam in 2015. If you know anything about test prep, you can see that when the College Board decided to release the New SAT in 2015, they were conceding that the ACT was a superior test, making changes to their own exam that made it more closely mirror the ACT. Just look at how similar the SAT Writing Section and ACT English sections are and the College Board’s decision to stop penalizing test takers for wrong answers.

Despite the ACT overtaking the SAT in terms of market share, there was still some stigma to taking the ACT and a bias in test prep that still trusted the SAT for admissions to the top schools. But I think that this bias has slowly deteriorated over the last handful of years. You could point to the number of SAT security breaches that have happened in the last decade, which I believe have been more severe than similar incidents with the ACT. You can also point to shrewd marketing decisions by the ACT to partner with state governments like Illinois, Michigan, and Colorado to replace high school exit exams with the ACT. Regardless, at this point, I honestly think that there’s no difference in the exam you take from an admissions standpoint.

“I honestly think that there’s no difference in the exam you take from an admissions standpoint”

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SAT vs ACT: Which one should I take?

When deciding on which exam to take, it all comes down to preference for exam structure, availability of testing dates, and which exam your high school requires you to take anyways.

 Avg Time per QuestionScience Section?% Geometry Qs for MathNo-Calculator Section?
Grid-in Math Qs?
SAT>1 minuteNo<10%YesYes
ACT<1 minuteYes35-45%NoNo

For structure, there are a number of differences between the two exams. The largest difference is that the ACT has a “Science” section and the SAT does not. The ACT Science section does not actually test science facts or knowledge but is more focused on reading and understanding graphs, tables, and data. The section also asks about students to interpret experiment designs and conclusions made, along with comparing and contrasting opposing scientific viewpoints. If these types of questions sound interesting to you or if you believe that you’re good at interpreting data or scientific opinions, the ACT might represent a better test for you, as your success on this section could boost your overall composite score. If this section sounds like your nightmare, the SAT is probably your best bet.

Another structural difference is in the reading section, which looks quite similar but are quite different in terms of pace and difficulty. I think most people would agree that the SAT gives students more time to read and answer their reading questions, but that the questions themselves, as a result, are slightly harder than the ACT reading questions. For the ACT, you might get less time per question, but the questions might be more straightforward to answer.

The last major structural difference is in the mathematics sections. While the SAT has less than 10% of its math questions related to geometry, the ACT has anywhere from 35%-45%. In addition, the SAT has a greater number of sections of the math portion with different restrictions: there’s a section that limits the use of a calculator and another section that has no multiple choice answers.

Another reason to choose one test over the other is because of the availability of test dates.

Testing MonthSATACT

Because many schools recommend taking SAT subjects tests as well ast the SAT/ACT, in can sometimes be more useful to find alternative dates to spread out a student’s exam schedule.

Last but not least, the exam you take could very well just come down to what your high school prefers. If you find that you have no preference of test and scheduling is not too much of a concern, you might as well follow the path of least resistance. If your high school uses the ACT or SAT as a high school exit exam, or if they pay for the registration fees for a particular exam for anyone who signs up, it makes sense to just go with the test you school encourages.

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