SAT or ACT? How to know which is best for your child

SAT or ACT: How to know which is best for your child, son and father talking while looking a laptop

At a glance

  • Most colleges will accept either the SAT or ACT.

  • The tests measure different skills in slightly different ways.

  • Your child may do better with one test than the other.

SAT or ACT? It might not seem like there’s much difference between the two college admissions tests. But these two tests really are quite different. Depending on your child’s learning and thinking differences, you may feel that one test is a better fit than the other.

One thing to think about is whether your child needs accommodations. To get , kids have to show documentation of a disability. And accommodations may have to appear in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan. They may be required to explain in writing how specific accommodations can help address their limitations.

Most students work with their school to apply for accommodations. You or your child will need to complete a consent form for the school. The school then requests accommodations on your child’s behalf. It’s important to start the applications for the test and accommodations early.


The SAT focuses on knowledge and skills that current research shows are most essential for college and career readiness. As of 2021, the SAT no longer has an optional essay component (though the ACT still does).

In 2024, the test will move to a fully digital format. That means no more paper and pencil. It will also be one hour shorter, lasting about two hours. ​The new version of the test will have shorter reading passages and will allow calculators throughout.

Kids might prefer the SAT if they:

  • Work slowly.

  • Read a lot and have a strong vocabulary.

  • Think “outside the box.” (Questions tend to test problem-solving ability rather than factual knowledge.)

The SAT’s accommodations for students with documented learning and thinking differences are generous. They include:

  • Presentation: This includes large print, a human reader, and text magnification to name a few.

  • Responding: Dictation, a tape recorder, and large block answer sheets can help.

  • Timing: Extended time and frequent breaks are allowed.

  • Setting: This can mean a small group setting, special room, and adaptive equipment.

The College Board’s Services for Students With Disabilities page explains who is eligible for accommodations. It also outlines how to apply and describes the accommodations.


The ACT leans toward testing what students learn in school instead of assessing ability.

Kids might prefer the ACT if they:

  • Work quickly.

  • Excel in math and science. (The SAT only tests math; ACT tests math and science.)

  • Prefer seeing questions like they see on school tests.

  • Do well with essay writing. (The ACT essay is optional, but may be required by target schools.)

The ACT offers two accommodations options, “Special” or “National.” Your child may choose only one:

  • National: Extended time (Students get up to 50 percent more time, with breaks), large print, and more.

  • Special: Testing at school or in a 1:1 setting. (Kids test with extended time and alternate formats instead of at a test center.)

Kids who get time-and-a-half for tests may need to take the test over multiple days. Ask your child’s school about other ACT accommodations.

You can also visit the ACT’s Services for Students With Disabilities page for an explanation of available accommodations and directions on how to apply for them. This National Versus Special Accommodations download is also helpful.

If standardized testing is a real challenge for your child, it’s good to know that more and more colleges are becoming test-optional. But most still require either the SAT or ACT for admission. Knowing the basic differences between the two can help your child pick the best test.

Key takeaways

  • Kids who work slowly or who think “outside the box” may prefer the SAT.

  • Kids who work quickly or who are strong in science may prefer the ACT.

  • Both tests offer accommodations, but you’ll have to apply for them.


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