Help! Which Standardized Test Do I Take?

Photo of David Querusio

Both tests claim to assess your ability to handle college-level coursework, but which exam do colleges really want to see on your file? Read on to learn more.

UPDATE: NYU has changed its standardized testing policy for the upcoming application cycle for the Class of 2025. Applicants applying during this upcoming admissions cycle (2020-2021) will not be required to submit standardized testing. If you do not submit test scores, you will not be disadvantaged during the application review process this year. We will equally consider students who submit standardized testing, those who are unable to sit for standardized testing this year, and those who submit their scores past our normal deadlines. Please contact the Office of Undergraduate Admissions for more information.

Ah yes, the age old question when it comes to standardized tests: “Do I take the ACT or the SAT for my college application?”

Truth be told, most colleges don’t necessarily have a preference for either test. What admissions offices do prefer, however, is that you send your strongest score. Before committing to taking either exam (and putting your credit card on the line unless you qualify for a waiver), it is important to understand how the SAT and ACT are structured.

Knowing the Difference

The ACT (American College Testing) is made up of four main sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. It also includes an optional writing section. Make sure to double-check with your college list to see if any schools require the writing section — NYU, for example, does not.

On the other hand, the SAT, or Standardized Aptitude Test, may seem “easier” because it has fewer content areas with its Evidence Based Reading and Writing and Math (one section with calculator and another without) sections, as well as an optional writing section. Don’t be fooled: both exams have similar time frames. The SAT runs for three hours with an optional 50-minute essay. The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes with the option of a 40-minute writing test.

ACT Science section aside, both the SAT and ACT cover similar subject areas. The reading/writing sections cover knowledge of grammar as well as reading comprehension skills. The math sections focus on prealgebra, algebra, and geometry. The Science section of the ACT focuses on understanding data and interpreting research.

Thankfully, neither exam deducts points for incorrect answers. Guess away! In fact, making educated guesses often boosts your score.

How to Prepare

If you are on the fence, the best (and most cost-efficient way) to see which test best matches your test-taking style is to simply sit down and take practice versions of the exams. I recommend borrowing some practice guidebooks, either from a local library or older sibling. Make sure the practice book is for a recent version of the exam. Both the SAT and ACT love to reinvent themselves, so the more recent the practice book, the better.

Try to recreate similar testing conditions when you take the practice exams. Find a quiet space. Make sure you have plenty of pencils and the calculator that you will bring with you to the actual test. Put your phone on silent and find your zen. Taking practice versions of the SAT and ACT will give you a sense of which is a better fit for your style. For example, some students might prefer taking the Science section of the ACT, while others might prefer just the two subject sections that the SAT covers.

Next, assess your scores for each practice exam and pinpoint areas for growth. Oftentimes, a strong ACT or SAT score has less to do with your college readiness and more about how you prepare for the way these tests operate.

Keep in Mind...

If neither exam score accurately reflects your skills, fear not! More and more schools are opting for a full test-optional policy. NYU has a test-optional policy for artistic programs. In addition, we have a test-flexible policy for students to submit testing other than the SAT or ACT.

One test may seem more popular than the other depending on your region. Again, focus on which test is best for your skills. The admissions committee doesn’t care if you are the only student who took the SAT in a predominately-ACT region. We do care that you took the time to take the test that shows you in your strongest light.

It is also important to remember that these tests are just one piece of your college admissions puzzle. While a strong score is important, it does not guarantee admission to any university. There are many ways to demonstrate college readiness, whether it is through strong high school grades or an amazing college essay. Best of luck, and happy test-taking!