The biggest challenge that students who take the SAT will face is the relative newness of the test: there are fewer practice tests, fewer certainties, and a certain lack of sophistication in the test prep process. The ACT has stayed more or less the same for years, giving students more material to review, but many families aren’t familiar with this test. So which test should we take?


Students with strong verbal skills will likely excel on either test; however, the ACT demands fast, superficial reading while the SAT aims for deeper reading. The SAT reading material is generally more difficult–many tests include a classic literature passage (think Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë) or other dense reading material–but students get significantly more time to complete the test. On the ACT, passages are modern and three out of four passages are straightforward with questions that mainly ask for fact recall, but many students find the timing difficult.

Grammar and Language

Both tests have similar grammar sections. As with all aspects of the ACT, the timing is more difficult on the English test, but it is a good fit for students with a good understanding of punctuation rules. The SAT Writing and Language test has slightly more emphasis on tone matching, vocabulary, and word choice, which can be difficult for some students. Due to the similarities between the two tests, the grammar section is usually not a deciding factor for most students.


While there is significant overlap on the math tests, there are some key differences in terms of timing, content, and approach for each test. The ACT Math favors students who can remember a lot of math, from Pre-Algebra and Geometry to Algebra 2 and even a little Pre-Calculus, and perform that math quickly and accurately. Good mental math skills can save time on the ACT, but they are a must on the SAT, which now includes a portion of the test to be completed without a calculator. The SAT provides some formulas, gives students more time, and focuses mostly on Algebra. Data analysis appears in the math section in the form of statistics questions on the SAT Math, which many students haven’t seen yet. In general, the questions are more context driven, asking students to interpret the meaning of a linear equation instead of simply solving it. Many students find that they need more practice with the somewhat more abstract math and multi-step word problems on the SAT, but it is not insurmountable. Students with a strong, fundamental understanding of Algebra 1 and 2 who need a little more time to demonstrate their potential should consider the SAT; students with a surface-level understanding of Geometry and Algebras 1 and 2 who can move quickly through math problems might find that the ACT is a better fit for them.

Data Analysis

Both tests will ask students to analyze graphs and data for trends, extrapolate data, predict outcomes of additional experiments, and evaluate experiment design, but in slightly different ways. The SAT has incorporated these skills into each section of the test. Reading and Writing and Language passages will include graphs at the end; the math test will have data tables and ask questions about random sampling and statistics. There is less science content on the SAT, which benefits some students, but it requires students to be more flexible in moving from reading comprehension to data analysis and back. The ACT has a separate Science test, which is daunting to students at first, but can be learned. Students who are good at reading graphs will do well on the ACT Science test, but the Science section should not be the only reason that a student chooses the SAT.


Overall, the ACT has difficult timing and straightforward questions but it also moves quite quickly. For this reason, students with extended time often find the ACT to be a better fit. Please note, however, that the ACT is notoriously stringent in evaluating student applications for extended time. The SAT, while generous with timing, focuses on whether or not students truly understand a concept.  While the test styles can be generalized and simplified, this decision must be made on a case-by-case basis. A great first step is to take a diagnostic test of each. Open Door Education proudly offers free proctored tests every weekend; to sign up, visit our website or call us directly. We are here to help families make this important choice and we are always happy to discuss a student’s testing options.