Once upon a time, there was a clear geographic distinction between the SAT and the ACT.

The ACT was what Midwestern high school students took and what Midwestern colleges required. Everyone else used the SAT. Top universities and colleges that drew applicants from across the country accepted both.

Today, that distinction has vanished. The SAT and ACT are given and accepted practically everywhere. Furthermore, the ACT has surpassed the SAT as the more popular test and is now taken by more high school seniors!

So which of the two tests should you take? It depends on your needs and preferences. Here’s a quick summary of the differences between the two tests:

  • The SAT is a reasoning test. It’s less about testing what you know than it is about measuring your ability to solve problems. You need to prepare specifically for this test to do well on it. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking a prep course, but it does mean familiarizing yourself with the format of SAT questions and ‘tuning in’ to what the testers are looking for. The SAT includes a mandatory essay writing assignment. The entire test takes almost 4 hours to complete.
  • The ACT is closer to a conventional test than the SAT is in that it involves more testing of what you know. A high school student who has been following a college preparatory curriculum should be ready to take the ACT by the spring of their junior year. The ACT has an optional writing assignment, which adds about 40 minutes to the test length and involves a separate test fee.

A number of selective schools also require applicants to submit scores from several SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT IIs) in addition to a score from either the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT. SAT Subject Tests measure how much you know about a particular topic, such as English Literature, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, or Spanish. Each test takes about one hour.

Make sure you understand which standardized test scores your target schools require. If you have to take SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT or ACT, it’s a good idea to plan your test dates early in your junior year. That way you can schedule adequate prep time for each test and leave yourself time for other activities. For more tips on standardized test timing, see our webpage on “Scheduling Your College Application Tasks.”

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