Switching between the ACT & SAT? Here’s what students need to know.

From registration difficulties to last-minute cancellations, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted students’ standardized testing plans around the world. Limited seats and changes to the test dates available in certain locations mean that some students might need to consider switching from the ACT to the SAT—or vice versa.

Switching from one test to another can be intimidating, but the good news is that a student who has been preparing for one exam has built a great foundation for both. Although the structure and pacing of the exams are different, about 80% of the content overlaps between the ACT and SAT.

Here's what students considering making the switch should do next.

Check in with their counselors.

Before making major changes to their testing plans, students should talk to their counselors about the next steps that make sense for their situations. Every student’s circumstances will be unique, involving their goal scores, universities they're considering, school circumstances, and other factors. These factors will help students and counselors determine which exams to aim for moving forward.

Adjust to a new pace.

In a nutshell, the biggest difference between the two exams is that the SAT asks trickier, more nuanced questions—but provides students with approximately 1/3 more time to answer them. By contrast, ACT’s questions are relatively straightforward but come with a time crunch.

Switching to the ACT?

  • Students must speed up to stay within tighter time limits on each section. This means making faster decisions and avoiding digging too deeply into a single question.
  • Most students find that the pacing of the English section of the ACT is comfortable, but the math, reading, and science sections require more practice. Not only are the reading and science sections the areas where most students feel the tightest time crunch, but they're also the final two sections of the exam. Students may need to overcome mental fatigue in order to maintain a quick pace on those sections. But the adjustment is very doable. Full-length, timed practice tests are a great way to build stamina and become comfortable with the flow of a new exam.

Switching to the SAT?

  • Students can allow themselves to work more slowly, giving each question more thought. Although students have more time to spare on each section, the more generous time limits are balanced by more challenging passages and questions, which means students must put their extra time to good use.
  • Many students find that finishing the reading section within the time limit can still be a challenge. Because this is the first section of the exam, it's important for students to get off to a strong start and have a plan for monitoring their pacing on each passage. Full-length, timed practice tests are a great way to practice getting into the right mindset and become comfortable with the flow of a new exam.


Prepare for new content and testing strategies.

Students will want to fill in high-priority content gaps and master test-specific strategies that can help them to maximize their scores.

Switching to the ACT?

  • Students will need to adjust to easier question prompts without overthinking what the test is asking them. The simpler language of ACT passages and questions means students can take more shortcuts and streamline their decision-making processes.
  • Students should get ready for the science section, which doesn’t require much scientific knowledge at all. To do well, students simply need to know which data points to look for and how to work efficiently across a fast-paced section.
  • The ACT includes higher-level math. Students should expect a few questions on every test that involve concepts like logarithms and the law of cosines, which don't appear on the SAT. Because the ACT does not include a math formula page, a bit more memorization is necessary as well.

Switching to the SAT?

  • Students will need to learn to tackle the SAT’s trickier question prompts by using strategies to break down what the test is asking and ignoring excess information that's there to distract them. The good news is that they'll have more time to do so.
  • Students should prepare for the the Global Conversations reading passage, which contains challenging and archaic language. Many students choose to save this passage for last so that they can focus on performing their best on the other four passage types.
  • The SAT includes a handful of grid-in questions at the end of each math section. These problems can require small adjustments from students accustomed to relying on shortcuts to narrow down multiple-choice options.
  • A calculator is allowed on only one of the two math sections. This means students may need to brush up their arithmetic and mental math skills. The SAT does include a brief formula page at the start of each math section, so a bit less memorization is needed.


The bottom line: if students need to make a switch, the hard work they've put in so far won’t go to waste.

The ACT and SAT share more similarities than differences. If a student needs to make a switch, they can take a deep breath and trust that the work they've put in so far has set them up with a solid foundation for success on both exams.

With that said, the right plan of attack can go a long way toward making the transition easier. ArborBridge tutors are trained to convert students' knowledge and skills across exams swiftly and efficiently so that students can learn to ace the other test in no time. For more help, reach out to us here.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

About Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

As one of the highest-performing tutors in ArborBridge’s history, Erin coaches tutors and develops tools and trainings to disrupt old habits and empower new strengths. With a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, Erin worked as a classroom teacher and student services director prior to joining ArborBridge in 2017. Her decade of success as an educator has prepared her to ensure that programs are tailored to individual students’ needs.

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