Do American Colleges Prefer the SAT or ACT?

At this point, almost every single college that accepts the SAT accepts the ACT as well—and vice-versa. Not only do they accept them, but they give them equal weight: a score in the 99th percentile on the ACT will do you just as much good as a score in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

I know that you probably came to this post hoping that I'd give you a definitive answer one way or the other. I wish I could! But I can tell you this: American colleges prefer the test that you score better on. They like to have applicants with high test scores. It makes them look good.

But more than that, it makes you look good.

Given that American colleges treat SAT scores and ACT scores the same, which exam should you take? Looking at a few factors can help you determine which exam is right for you.

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If you're a super-fast test-taker, consider taking the ACT. The ACT provides less time per question, on average, than the SAT does. With that said, ACT questions tend to be less tricky and more straightforward—just make sure you can get to them all in time.

This isn't necessarily something that you'll see right away by taking diagnostic tests, but compare the percentage of questions you answered on your ACT practice test to the percentage of questions you answered on your SAT practice test: if there's a significant difference in favor of the ACT, that's a point in favor of it.


The major difference here is that the ACT intersperses the STEM sections (in this case, Science and Math) among the English and Reading, so that the overarching structure is: English, Math, Reading, Science, Essay (optional). On the other hand, the SAT has generally grouped like subjects, barring the essay: the pattern there is: Reading, Writing, no-calculator Math, calculator Math, Essay (optional). On both tests, the sections will always appear in this order.

Is this going to be a deal-breaker for most students? Probably not. If, on the other hand, you find it difficult to transition quickly between very different subjects, it is a factor to keep in mind.

By subject

Love science? The ACT may be for you—yes, Virginia, there is a science section. This section is more about scientific reasoning than actual facts (there will be only a handful of questions that pertain to actual science), so it's a good idea to give it a try before dismissing it out of hand. If you're good at interpreting data and trends, this could be a sign that the ACT is for you.

Love your calculator? There is a no-calculator Math section on the SAT. There is not a no-calculator section on the ACT. In other words, you can use your calculator for all of the math on the ACT, but not the SAT.

On the other hand, if mental math is a strength for you, that no-calculator section can be a real confidence booster!

Love literature (but read slowly)? If you're a good reader, but it takes you some time, the SAT may be your better bet. The passages are more complex, yes, but they also tend to be shorter and give you more time per question, so it's worth looking into.

Because of this, it helps on the SAT if you can find traps. The SAT is less straightforward than the ACT, particularly in those reading questions. So if you're a strategic thinker, then this may be the section you excel in on the SAT.

A final word

Increasingly, students are taking both the SAT and the ACT and then submitting their best scores (by percentile) to colleges. This is a good idea—if you want to make test-prep a full-time job. If you don't, I recommend taking an SAT practice test and an ACT practice test, comparing your probable percentiles, and then going with the test that you instinctually did better on, before beginning your preparation (or the test that you have time for—no reason prepping for the SAT if you can't make any of the SAT test dates, or ditto for ACT test dates!). That way, you'll have the best chance of maximizing your scores—no matter the test!


Special thanks to Rachel for providing us with this article. Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a test prep expert with Magoosh, specializing in undergraduate and graduate admissions exams. She has worked in test prep and education for over a decade. Rachel has a BA from Brown University, a Master Recherche from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She currently divides her time among Paris, London, and Wisconsin (the glamour!).