Navigating the standardized testing university is often one of the most confusing aspects of the application process for students and parents. To test, or not to test? Which test to take? How to prepare, when to take it, and how many times? These considerations are complicated by the rise of test optional policies at many universities, especially since the pandemic.  It doesn’t help that some universities have permanent test-optional policies while others are only temporary, pending review at a future date. These institutions can change their test requirements at their discretion, often leaving students scrambling to meet application requirements. The further distinction between test-flexible (alternate tests can be submitted in place of SAT/ACT), test-optional (submitting test scores is not required), and test-blind (test scores are ignored entirely) can cause further uncertainty. 

In most cases, we advise students to take at least one standardized test before deciding whether they want to submit scores to colleges with test-optional policies. But how should they decide which test to take, the SAT or the ACT? Contrary to popular misconception, most colleges do not have a preference between the two, though the two exams are quite different. Here is a brief look at the differences between the SAT and ACT, as well as a list of the benefits to taking diagnostic tests for both exams.

The SAT vs.the ACT: What’s the difference?

Both the SAT and the ACT measure college readiness by assessing a student’s critical thinking and analytical skills, but that may be where the similarity ends. The tests vary in structure, timing, content and scoring:

Number of Questions Exam times Sections Scoring


98 2 hours 14 minutes Two Reading/Writing Modules (65 mins)

Two Math Modules (70 mins)

Scores each section on a scale of 200-800, with a total between 400-1600
ACT 215 2 hours 55 mins Reading (35 mins)

English (45 mins)

Math (60 mins)

Science (35 mins) 

Averages each section on a scale of 1-36

Additionally, with significantly more questions and only slightly more time given in the ACTs, students have less time per question. 

  • The SAT is shorter, which some students find more manageable and less taxing.
  • The SAT is considered more intuitive than the ACT; the ACT is designed to be more of a straightforward test covering concepts that students should have learned in school.
  • The Digital SAT is adaptive, meaning that students get harder or easier questions based on their performance in each module. This means that the version of the exam taken varies across a single test date.

Without a deeper understanding of the exams, it can be hard deciding between the two. Students who opt to take both exams have to double the study and practice time, as these exams require different study strategies. We recommend that students determine the exam they are most suited for by taking a diagnostic test for both the SAT and the ACT, a service that is increasingly becoming available at testing and coaching centers. Even if you know which exam you want to take from the outset, there are still benefits to taking the diagnostic test, including setting a baseline test score.

What is a diagnostic test and what will you get out of it?

A diagnostic test is a full-length practice exam done under realistic testing conditions, administered at most tutoring and test prep centers.  Most of the time, students will be given a past paper to complete in one sitting under strict time restrictions. Some centers have their own “SAT vs ACT” tests that can take less time. Either way, the exam proctor will then mark the completed exam and provide feedback.

Often, students perform better on one exam than the other, helping them make a more informed decision about whether to take the SAT or ACT. Some students have a strong preference after sitting these diagnostics, favoring the question styles or pacing of one test over the other.

Here are 5 reasons why you should take the diagnostic tests:

  1. The diagnostic tests familiarize you with the test-taking experience as well as the type and style of questions to expect and help you determine which testing style you prefer – SAT or ACT.
  2. Diagnostic exams can clue you in on specific topics that you need to focus on in your revision. You may also be able to identify popularly tested topics.
  3. The diagnostic tests give you a baseline score to ascertain how much improvement is required to reach your target scores. 
  4. The diagnostic tests can pinpoint students’ test-taking strengths and weaknesses.  Discovering the sections and the type of questions you excel at, as well as the areas you find challenging, can help you plan your study strategy wisely.
  5. Diagnostic exams may highlight the effect of time pressure on your results, encouraging you to improve your time-management skills.

The bottom-line is that it is advisable to take diagnostic tests for both the ACT and SAT and select one of these standardized tests as a part of your college application process, whether you decide to submit the scores or not. Why not increase your chances of scoring well by ensuring you have chosen the test best suited to your strengths? 

If you need some advice regarding standardized tests, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

(Image: Image by yanalya on Freepik)