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Should I Take the SAT or ACT? - Updated for the DSAT (2024)

Updated: Jan 14

The SAT and ACT appear nearly identical at a glance, but there are a few key differences between these standardized tests. Many families tend towards the SAT on brand-name recognition, but the ACT might be a better fit for your skillset. Let's take a look at a brief summary of the two tests:

  • The SAT is about two and a quarter hours in length.

  • The Reading section is made of two sets of 27 questions, each of which gives you 32 minutes to complete it.

  • The Math section is made of two sets of 22 questions, each of which gives you 35 minutes to complete it.

  • There's a 10 minute break between the Reading and Math sections.

  • The ACT is about three hours in length-unless you take the optional essay, which pushes it closer to four hours.

  • The English section is 45 minutes and 75 questions long.

  • The Math section is 60 minutes and 60 questions long.

  • The Reading section is 35 minutes and 40 questions long.

  • The Science section is 35 minutes and 40 questions long.

  • There's an optional 40 minute essay.

  • There's a single 10-minute break after the Math section (with a second 5-minute break after the Science section if you're writing the essay).


The first thing that should jump out at you is the biggest difference between tests: the ACT has a Science section and an optional essay!

The Science section is closest in style to the Reading sections you might be more familiar with. Rather than testing your preexisting knowledge of physics or chemistry, this section tests your ability to read and effectively analyze articles, charts, and graphs.

The essay is entirely optional, and holds very little weight on the impression of how good your ACT score is. If you're an excellent author, you may want to consider going the extra mile, but if you aren't, don't feel pressured to take it on!


You might also have heard that the SAT, now that it's digital, is "adaptive." The idea is that the test changes itself to be harder or easier depending on how well your student is doing.

This is true, but it's rather less impressive than it sounds. In each of the Reading and Math sections (or "modules"), your go into an "easy" or "hard" second module depending on how well they did on the first module.

Usually, to get into the hard modules, you need to score 17 to 19 questions right in the Reading section or 11 to 14 questions right in the Math section. And getting into those hard modules is a big deal - it puts you on an easier grading scale that dramatically impacts your final score.


However, more important than either of these is the discrepancy in time. The SAT isn't just shorter than the ACT - it also gives you more time to answer each question!

The Reading section on the SAT contains the subject matter for both the English and Reading section on the ACT. On the ACT, these sections give you 36 and 52 seconds per question, respectively... but on the SAT, you get 71 seconds per question!

The Math sections have similarly different timing. On the ACT, you get 60 seconds per question, but on the SAT, you have 95 seconds per question. All in all, on the SAT, you have around 50% more time on each and every question.

It cannot be overstated how big this difference is. On the ACT, students often struggle to finish the Math, Reading, and Science sections, while on the SAT, it's expected that you'll be able to get to each and every question - and give them the time they deserve. Due to this, missing questions on the SAT is much more punishing than it is on the ACT; expect to see your score crater from even a few missed questions.


Finally, as a brief aside, there are a few subtler differences between the tests.

The first is subject matter. The ACT has slightly more complicated topics in the Math section. The two tests stop at a similar point (around the end of Algebra 2 and the start of Precalculus) but a few complicated topics like Matrixes can show up on the ACT.

On the flip side, the SAT has more complicated questions. Expect to see more word problems in Math and a Reading section that's full of analysis, rather than fact-finding.


As a brief summary:

  • If you're skilled at analysis and are confident that you'll get into both hard modules, the SAT is a good fit for you.

  • If you shine during time pressure and love straightforward questions with difficult subject matter, the ACT is likely a better fit.

If you're still having a hard time deciding between the two, contact us at; we'll walk you through the process of choosing between the two, and, if you're willing to put in the time, we'll give you a 30-minute breakdown of your performance on a practice test, to make sure you're choosing the test that best suits your skillset.

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