College Admissions 101: Choosing between the ACT and SAT


If you’re worried about which test to take for college admissions and going back and forth, look no further! There are enough decisions to make in the coming months; don’t let choosing which test to take add to your list of stressors. In fact, many students take both. Taking both tests allows you to compare which scores reflect your abilities better. Colleges accept both, so whether you choose the ACT or the SAT, you won’t be making the wrong decision.


There’s a myth that Ivy Leagues prefer the SAT over the ACT, but both are accepted.

The popularity of the SAT vs. the ACT depends on your location. At Yale, “74% took the SAT and 45% took the ACT,”  while at Northwestern University is “dominated by the ACT. Seventy two percent of first year students enrolled submitted an ACT score.”

Similarly, Olivia Pittman, Research and Content Specialist at College Raptor, shares, “The ACT is much more popular in the Midwest than the SAT is. Which isn’t surprising, considering many states in that region require each student take the ACT as part of statewide assessments.”

An easy way to decide which test to take is considering whether the test is a state requirement. Edweek found that “Twenty-five states require students to take the SAT or ACT, the same number as in 2016 and 2017. That number had been climbing steadily—from seven states a decade ago— as states looked for ways to encourage students to go to college.” Take a look at the breakdown of states here.


Sections and Length

IvyWise breaks down the difference between each of the tests. The SAT is 3 hours, and the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long. Unsurprisingly, the number of questions differs for each test, with 154 on the SAT and 215 on the ACT.

If you’re interested in more information, check out IvyWise’s side-by-side comparison table here. For now, here is a summary of the differences between each test:


SAT: Two sections (one with calculator, one without), 80 Minutes

ACT: 60 minutes


SAT: Passages or pairs of passages from literature, historical documents, social sciences, and more.

ACT: 35 minutes, 4 passages



ACT: 35 minutes, Questions on science-based passages


SAT: “Grammar, vocabulary in context, and editing skills”

ACT: “Tests grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and rhetorical skills”


SAT: Optional, 50 minutes

ACT: Optional, 40 minutes

Because there is an entire section without a calculator on the SAT, “students who are not as strong in math without the aid of a calculator could struggle with this section.” Meanwhile, on the ACT, “since the reading section tends to be longer and denser, students with strong reading comprehension and recall skills can be better equipped to score well on those sections.”

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Last year, the SAT average score was 1068, while ACT score was 20.8. In the past, you were penalized for leaving questions blank on the SAT, with points being deducted for every skipped question. However, now, there is no penalty for skipping questions on either the SAT or the ACT.

According to Kaplan, you should always guess on the questions you are stuck trying to figure out. By guessing, you are increasing your chances of “getting a correct answer, and it makes strategic use of your time by letting you focus your energy (and time) on questions that you know how to do.”

Photo by  Chris Liverani  on  Unsplash

Start Preparing Today

The earlier you start, the less stressful next fall will be. Even learning a new word every couple of days or practicing a few math flashcards will gradually take you to the next level. Take a look at our list of free study resources to get you started.