When you’re wondering which test you should take for college admissions, the reality is that you’re probably wondering, “Which is harder, the SAT or ACT?”
As a globally recognized test prep tutor who works with students all over the world, I hear this question all the time. Or, sometimes, parents call me up and preemptively say something like, “We want our third child to take the SAT [or ACT] because his older sister and brother did so well on it five years ago.”
Given how much the SAT and ACT have evolved in the last few years, however, you shouldn’t assume that what your family and friends did even a few years ago should automatically inform whether you choose the SAT or ACT this year or next.
Not only that, the real question you’re asking isn’t, “Which is harder, the SAT or ACT,” but rather, “Which of the two tests will ultimately be more difficult for me?”
Which is Harder, the SAT or ACT Reading, For You?
Of course, we can’t reduce this to a one-word answer, but I can offer some lenses to help you understand the trickier elements of each test.
The SAT Reading
Here’s the thing with the SAT Reading: it probably does a better job of testing the kind of reading you’ll actually do in college and, for that reason, most students do find it to be more challenging.
Here’s what makes the SAT Reading notably a “college level” test (and therefore “harder”):
The vocabulary that was once in the Sentence Completion section (which was removed from the SAT in 2016) is now embedded in the reading passages themselves. While the College Board argues that the vocab on these passages should be detectable based on context, that’s not always the case. Even if it were, it’s always easier to read when your vocab is robust and you aren’t distracted by vocab.
If you struggle to read early American and British non-fiction and literature (things like arguments about the Articles of Confederation, debates about slavery, or Romantic literature that sounds like The Count of Monte Cristo) you’ll most certainly wrestle with at least one passage on the SAT. This is a new edition as a predictable, regular presence on the SAT reading, and it’s obviously there to reward students who excel in advanced ELA courses.
The evidence-based “pairs” of questions can trip up some students. Some students see them as hints on where to find the right answers to questions; others get sucked into red herring answers.
Scientific reasoning makes an appearance on the SAT, which means you aren’t just reading passages and answering questions: you’re reading passages that include charts and graphs and making observations about those charts within the reading section.
The SAT Reading is longer, both in number of questions and in time. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily faster.
The ACT Reading
The ACT Reading passages are a little more straightforward than those on the SAT, as are the questions, which means that most people will say that the SAT Reading is harder than the ACT. At least as of this writing, the ACT Reading passages are more about identifying specific details in the passage and ask students to make fewer inferences.
Here’s what might make the ACT Reading difficult for you, though:
You will probably find that the ACT pacing is more unforgiving than the SAT’s pacing. You read four passages and answer forty questions in only thirty-five minutes on the ACT.
The devil is in the details: If you aren’t naturally a fast reader, you may have a hard time getting through the ACT, especially if you find you have to go back and reread frequently to find all those details.
Some ACT Reading passages are more “tedious” than those on the ACT. In other words, they’re designed to bog you down a bit and see if you still can get the gist and pick up on important details. If you get overwhelmed when you aren’t sure what’s going on, this may not be the test for you.
Which is Harder, the SAT or ACT Math, For You?
The SAT and ACT are copycat frenemies on the math front; they’re two tests that continually steal from each other while also including completely unrelated topics. It never fails to surprise me when old SAT-style questions pop up on the ACT Math–and vice versa. We can’t get into everything on the SAT and ACT Math here, but there are some highlights to note that will guide your thinking about whether the SAT or ACT Math will be harder for you.
The SAT Math
The SAT Math tests are obsessed with exploring your deep knowledge of fundamentals. Don’t conflate “fundamentals” with “easy,” though.
Here’s what might make some students find the SAT Math harder than the ACT Math:
The SAT is unbelievably heavy on algebraic basics. Only students who excelled in an honors-level algebra class and retained why algebra works the way it does would only need limited review before taking the SAT. Again, this makes sense: the reasoning the SAT explores is the reasoning that advanced college-level math students use foundationally to move through higher level math classes.
Even if you’re a superstar in geometry, the SAT doesn’t test very much geometry. Despite there only being a few geometry questions, they’re always multi-layered and complex.
With the inclusion of the No Calculator test, the College Board makes it clear that your calculator reliance will not benefit you on the SAT–not only on the No Calculator section, but on the Calculator Test, as well. Knowing when to use a calculator but not needing to use a calculator is key.
The ACT Math
The ACT Math test is a test of knowledge and speed: students answer sixty questions in sixty minutes spanning every topic from arithmetic to statistics and advanced pre-calculus concepts.
Some students might find the ACT harder than the SAT Math. Here are a few reasons why:
Pacing: As I mentioned above, the ACT moves even more quickly than does the SAT.
Breath of topics: the ACT technically tests the same material as the SAT, but it goes much further into topics students taking trigonometry and statistics learn in school. Students don’t need to show deep knowledge in math of the advanced topics, but the ACT does far more to reward familiarity with them (or, from the other side of the coin, make the test more difficult for students who are only in the early stages of learning in geometry or algebra II). You arguably need to know more for the ACT Math.
Esoteric questions: The questions on the ACT are just as tricky as those that appear on the SAT, but they’re layered on a wider breadth of topics.
Will the Science Reasoning Test Make the ACT Harder Than the SAT For You?
Let me be clear: the Science Reasoning is very often the make-or-break section for students taking the ACT.
Some students absolutely love it.
Meanwhile, it’s the thorn in other students’ sides. Here’s why:
The science section on the ACT tests science reasoning, not science knowledge. This test is all about applying analytical skills like reading graphs, understanding experimental processes, and creating reasonable extrapolations of ideas. If you’re the type of person who gets really trapped in the details of the experiments, you may need to do a lot of practice to break that habit.
The luck of the draw: Sometimes one or two questions might require you to have basic science knowledge, and those questions are usually only at the level of knowing which direction acids and bases go on the PH scale. If you’re going for a perfect score, these questions can catch you off-guard.
The science section is always easier for students who have taken biology, chemistry, and physics; they’re usually more comfortable with the framework of the test.
Will The Writing/English Tests Be Harder on the SAT or ACT?
While they’re not identical, these two tests are interchangeable enough that they should least affect your decision to go with one test or the other.
Elizabeth King is an established leader in SAT and ACT test preparation; she tutors students worldwide, coaching students to consistently unlock their potential and earn significant SAT and ACT score gains. Her proprietary methods appear in her books, Outsmarting the SAT (‘08) and Acing the ACT (‘15), both with Ten Speed Press. Elizabeth lives in Nashville, Tennessee, but you can always find her at elizabethonline.com.