For years, standardized testing has been a fixture of the college admission process. But the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated an already-growing trend of colleges relaxing testing requirements. During the peak of the pandemic, hundreds of schools went “test optional” (no longer requiring ACT® or SAT® score submissions). Some colleges and universities considered it a one-year switch, many decided on a longer trial period, and others announced permanent changes to their admissions processes.

But optional doesn’t mean cancelled. (Few schools have yet to go “test blind,” which means that they won’t consider a score, even if you submit it.) So should you take these tests? And if so, which one? Checking the requirements of your desired schools can help you make a decision. So can learning more about these two exams.

All about the ACT and SAT

There are two main standardized tests used in college admissions: the ACT and the SAT exams. Understanding the differences between them will help you decide whether to take one or the other, both, or neither, and help you be better prepared.

Both exams contain questions generated from a standard test bank, and students are timed for each section. But before putting your number two pencil to paper, it's important to understand the basics, including:




Type of Test Measures what you have learned in school. Evaluates your reasoning and verbal skills.
Test Sections
Essay (optional)
Writing and language
Essay (optional)
Test Length (allotted section time only)

2 hours, 55 minutes
3 hours, 35 minutes (with essay)
3 hours
3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)
Costs $60
$85 (with essay)
More info

Studying for the ACT and SAT tests

There are numerous guides and websites that can help you study for the ACT and SAT tests, providing you with sample questions and helping you learn techniques to more effectively complete them within the allotted time. One effective way to prepare is to do the practice tests online, and then study your incorrect answers. You can also take prep courses or hire a tutor, both of which have additional costs.

When to take the ACT and SAT

Traditionally, most students take the test twice. But with test center closures and cancelled exams, it may only be possible to get in one test. Typically, people take the test for the first time during the spring of junior year of high school. This gives them time to learn the material and concepts tested, but also provides enough of a buffer in case they want to repeat the test during the fall of senior year.

The ACT and SAT exams are administered separately and are offered several times throughout the year. It's important to check the registration deadlines to ensure you register on time for the date that fits your needs.

How much do the SAT and ACT cost?

There are registration costs associated with the ACT and SAT exams, including late fees if you miss the registration deadlines. There are also fees associated with changing your test date, as well as releasing your scores to colleges you apply to. (Both tests include four score reports, but charge for any additional ones.) It is possible to qualify for fee waivers for both tests, so be sure to check your eligibility before paying registration fees.

How the ACT and SAT can help you land a scholarship

Traditionally, standardized test scores have been a requirement for many merit scholarships. Some colleges that have switched to “test optional” admissions no longer require the SAT or ACT as a prerequisite for receiving these awards. But others still require scores for scholarships, even if they don’t require them for admissions, and private scholarships may require them. Before deciding whether or not to take the ACT or SAT, look into the scholarship programs you intend to apply for, and see if you’ll need scores to qualify.

Should you take the ACT or SAT?

If the schools you’re applying to are “test optional” then it’s up to you whether or not to try to take one or both of the exams. Some students may be relieved that they don’t need to prepare for and take a nerve-wracking test, while others may feel that a high test score can strengthen their application.

Before trying your hand at either the ACT or SAT exams, consider their formats and what you will be evaluated on, and which exam might play to your strengths. Looking at practice tests can also help you choose.

Once you’ve decided on a test, look at the test dates and register for the date and time that works best with your schedule. (Testing centers can fill up quickly, so do this well in advance.) Research the different study materials available and choose a method that will be effective for you. And then, get cracking!

SAT® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.
ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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