How do you know which one is best for you? What’s the difference between the two? And what’s going on with standardized testing now anyway? How relevant is it to the admissions process? Let’s take a look.

The Status of Standardized Testing

Standardized testing has gone through a number of changes recently due to the pandemic and other factors. Whereas before it was the norm for schools to require applicants to submit either the SAT or ACT as part of their applications, today this is no longer the case. Now, we are seeing a split between a few different categories of testing requirements.

Test Required

This is the traditional category we mentioned earlier. These are schools that require that students submit an SAT or SAT as part of their applications. Nothing particularly special here to look at. Students will need to decide which of the exams they will take, student diligently, and score as high as they possibly can to increase their chances of admission at these universities.

Test Optional

In this category, universities will allow students to choose if they are going to submit a standardized test. If students elect to submit scores, they will be considered as part of their applications. If students elect not to submit test scores, they will not be considered. Students often wonder if universities actually mean that it won’t hurt their applications if they don’t submit scores. The answer is yes! If a university has indicated that they are test optional, they really do mean that you will not be hurt by choosing to not submit scores. If you don’t believe me, read it from the dean of admissions at Tufts University, JT Duck.

So, the question then becomes: when do I choose to submit scores and when should I not? Generally speaking, the answer that we give students here is to submit scores when they are within the middle 50% range of the school they are applying to. Typically, universities will publish their average admitted student test scores. The way they mostly do this is by giving a range of scores in which the middle 50% of their admitted applicants were. So, look up what the middle 50% of scores is for the school you are applying to. If your ACT or SAT score is within that range, go ahead and submit your score. If it isn’t, simply elect to not report scores. You will not be negatively impacted. We always recommend that our students at least try taking a standardized test, as if you can get a high score, it will help further demonstrate your academic capabilities. Worst case scenario, if you do poorly, you can elect to not submit it at most schools. And in the case that you’re applying somewhere that requires testing, you have a score ready to submit.

Test Blind

Test blind schools are ones that will not even look at your test scores, whether or not you want to submit them. No applicants will have their test scores considered. This is a minority of schools, but notably the University of California system is entirely test blind, so keep that in mind if you want to apply to Berkeley or UCLA.

Test Flexible

The last category we will mention is test flexible. These are schools that will allow you to submit other test scores, such as AP exams, instead of an SAT or ACT. This is also a relatively small category, but it is good to be aware that this does exist.


Okay, now that we’ve understood where things stand right now, let’s get a grasp on the similarities and differences between the SAT and ACT. First of all, it is important to note that these exams are both equally valuable in terms of college admissions. One is not better than the other. The best one for you to take is simply the one that you can score the highest on. Both will be accepted by universities and weighed equally.

In terms of content, both have a Reading section, a Writing/English section, and a Math section. The main difference is that the ACT has an additional Science section. Don’t worry, you don’t actually need any specific science knowledge to do well on this section. It is more like a critical thinking section where you will be asked to interpret charts and data, without actually using any “hard scientific” knowledge. Both exams are about 3 hours long.

On the SAT there are certain math questions that you can use a calculator and other sections where you cannot. The ACT allows you to use a calculator on every math questions. Lastly, there is an optional essay section on the ACT that you may take if you choose to, but the vast majority of college programs will not require you to take it. Always double check requirements on their websites.

Which should I take?

As we said earlier, you should take the one that you will do the best on! How do you know? By taking a full-length practice test for both. These are easy enough to find online, or if you are working with a tutor. Be sure that you simulate real test conditions. Once you’ve taken a practice test for both, compare your scores. You can talk to your tutor to see which one you did better on, or you can search for an “SAT ACT Concordance Table,” which will show you how to compare the score of one to the other.

After choosing the one you are stronger in, begin studying many months before you plan on taking your test. Be sure to use any resources available to you, like practice books, practice tests, online resources, and/or a tutor. Be sure you plan in advance. You may want to take the exam two or three times to improve your score. Generally speaking, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to sign up for another official exam only one month after you’ve just taken one. It might not be enough time to significantly improve. It would be good to leave at least 2-3 months between official exams so you have enough time to bump your score up a decent amount. Lastly, try your best to finish your exams before the end of Junior year. Senior year (and likely the summer before if you are being smart and starting early) you will be busy writing college essays and filling out applications. It will be a huge advantage to you if you finish your standardized testing as early as possible, and no later than the end of Junior year.

This has been a close look at the state of standardized testing and the SAT vs ACT. At American College Counselors, we work one-on-one with students to help them develop a unique strategy that will maximize chances of admissions success at America’s top universities.

If you need help on your college list, interviews, applications, essays, resumes, or anything else related to the admissions process, please contact us to set up a free initial consultation where we can get to know each other a bit better and explain exactly what we do. Send us an email at [email protected] or call/text us at +1(954)-593-6230.