SAT vs. ACT: Does it Matter Which One I Take?

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The short answer is no, it does not matter to selective colleges and universities which admissions test you choose to take. The more important questions to ask are what are the differences between the two tests and which test is more likely to provide you with the potentially higher score. That is, after all, what matters most to selective colleges and universities.

But before we sort out the differences and determine which test fits your learning and testing style best, let’s think about where this testing began, what purpose it serves in the admissions process and what the implications are for higher education with such a profitable and powerful testing industry firmly in place.

A Brief History of Standardized Testing

Standardized testing dates back to China when citizens were tested for government jobs by determining their knowledge of Confucian philosophy and poetry. A similar process emerged in the Western world in the form of essay exams that were modeled after the ancients Greeks’ penchant for the Socratic method. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution during the 1800’s that formal education began to move children from the farms and factories into schoolhouses and the need to quickly assess large numbers of students arose.

In the early 1900’s, standardized tests were developed to measure intelligence, determine a person’s eligibility for civil service jobs and to assign Army personnel to appropriate jobs. However, the grading was done manually and did not meet the goal of assessing large numbers of learners in a timely manner. In 1936, IBM developed a computer that used electric currents to detect marks made by special pencils. The rest, as they say, is history.


In the early 1920’s, Carl Brigham was a professor of psychology at Princeton University studying the Army’s Mental Tests. He soon began to adapt these tests to develop his own college admissions test, the Princeton Test, in 1925. The College Board, a nonprofit organization, then hired Carl Brigham to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in 1926. The test focused on vocabulary, math and fill-in-the-blank analogies (e.g., ____:head :: shoe:foot). The SAT soon became one of the key components in selecting the most “qualified” students for admission to colleges and universities.


It wasn’t until 1959 when Everett Franklin Lindquist, a professor of education at the University of Iowa, developed American College Testing (ACT) to compete with the SAT. In order to differentiate the ACT from the SAT, the test included two additional sections. One section was designed to help students select a course of study by asking them about their interests and another section was added to test a student’s knowledge of science and ability to analyze charts and graphs.

The Role of Standardized Testing in the Admissions Process

Although most selective colleges and universities require you to submit standardized test scores with your application, each college has its own admission process and policies, and they use scores differently. Some four-year colleges and open-admission colleges, including community colleges, don’t require scores but may use test scores, alone or in combination with other characteristics and achievements, to award scholarships, place students in appropriate courses and/or provide academic support services. SAT and ACT scores are also used as eligibility criteria to participate in intercollegiate athletics.

While SAT and ACT scores were once seen as a determining factor in the selection process and an indicator of a student’s ability to succeed, selective colleges and universities have started to take a more holistic view of the applicant, recognizing the importance of qualities like persistence, resilience and a growth mindset as contributors to a student’s ability to succeed.


One of the best ways to determine which test best fits your learning and testing style is to take the practice tests for the SAT (PSAT) and the ACT (PREACT or Aspire). Don’t be afraid of taking the tests more than once, or of scoring higher on one test over the other. Colleges care about your highest score, regardless of which test you take. For those who are eligible, fee waivers (SAT and ACT) are available to help cover the costs of taking the tests. You can also become familiar with the differences by taking a look at this chart.

Overview A reasoning test that is designed to test one’s ability to analyze information. A content-based test that is designed to test one’s accumulated knowledge.
Reading 65 minutes, 52 questions. Four long passages, one double passage.

Questions require use of evidence to reach conclusions from passages.

35 minutes, 40 questions.

Reasoning skills to determine and evaluate aspects of passages.

Math 80 minutes, 2 sections, 57 questions.

Emphasis on problem solving and application, some formulas given, one section without use of a calculator.

60 minutes, 1 section, 60 questions.

Emphasis on application, a number of formulas given, calculator use for all sections.

Science Not Included. 35 minutes, 40 questions. More interpreting tables and graphs and connecting information than content based questions.
English/Writing 35 minutes, 44 multiple choice questions, 4 different passages.

Interpreting informational graphics.

45 minutes, 75 multiple choice questions, 5 different passages.

Straightforward questions.


(optional on both)

Analyze the development of the author’s argument. Analyze different perspectives on an issue and develop your own argument.
Scoring-Incorrect/Ommitted No Point Deduction. No Point Deduction.

Why Prepify?

As standardized testing becomes increasingly connected to college admissions, academic assessment and funding in public education, the number of test preparation options has grown tremendously. Unfortunately, this has created a divide between those who can afford to prepare for standardized testing and those who cannot.

We believe that every student deserves access to high quality resources to prepare for college, including test prep. This is why we have partnered with Testive to provide free SAT and ACT prep for every student.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get Prepified!

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