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SAT vs. ACT: Which Should Students With LD and ADHD Take?

Tips SAT vs ACT - Students with LDCollege admissions is a stressful process in the best of circumstances, but for students with learning challenges or ADHD, it can be overwhelming. In a maelstrom of deadlines, recommendations, essays, and applications, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT stand out. Students tend either to give them little thought or obsess about them to the point of distraction. Neither approach is helpful! Preparation can help ease anxiety while ensuring a student is giving the test his or her best effort. ACT and SAT Basic Information and TipsThe first step is to know the tests. While the vast majority of colleges will accept either test for admissions, there are significant differences between the two in content tested, question format, structure, and pacing. These differences often mean that students prefer one over the other. The best way to choose a test is to take a full-length practice test of each, then compare scores (SAT-ACT conversion table). Practice tests can be downloaded from the SAT and ACT websites. If that approach seems a little too time consuming and effortful, here are some quick tips to point students in the right direction.

Tips - SAT vs. ACT

A student might prefer the SAT if he or she:

  • Tends to work slowly
  • Is an avid reader and has built up a strong vocabulary
  • Enjoys finding solutions to novel problems (i.e. thinks “outside the box”)
  • Is a strong writer

A student might prefer the ACT if he or she:

  • Works quickly
  • Is a math/science person
  • Prefers seeing questions like those seen in school
  • Struggles with essay writing (the ACT essay is optional, but may be required by the target schools—so plan accordingly)

Here’s a more thorough breakdown of test content:




Critical Reading (SAT)/Reading (ACT)
  • 70 minutes
  • Sentence Completions
  • 19 Questions Passage Reading
  • 48 Questions on 7 passages of varying lengths
  • 35 minutes
  • Passage Reading
  • 40 Questions on 4 passages (Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science)
  • 70 minutes
  • 54 Questions (including 10 student produced response)
  • Numbers & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Data Analysis/Statistics/Probability
  • 60 Minutes
  • 60 Questions
  • Pre-Algebra (Numbers & Operations, Probability, etc.) Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry
Writing (SAT)/English & Writing (ACT)
  • 60 minutes
  • 25-minute essay
  • 49 multiple choice (Identifying sentence errors, improving sentences and improving paragraphs
  • English is 45 minutes
    • 75 questions on grammar/punctuation and style/organization
  • Writing is 30 minutes
    • Essay
    • OPTIONAL, but generally required by selective colleges
  • Not tested
  • 35 minutes
  • 40 questions on 7 passages, including tables/graphs/charts

When to Take the ACT or SAT A second consideration is timing. Ideally, students will commit to a test, and a specific test date up to a year ahead of time. School and family commitments may make some dates unfeasible, while school vacations that allow free time may make other dates desirable. Students with ADHD and/or LD may opt for September/October or January/February test dates to take advantage of breaks. They often benefit from extended prep, too, and may need a year or more of regular practice or tutoring to fully assimilate all of the necessary information. Further, while the “traditional” times to take college admissions exams are the spring of junior year and the fall of senior year, many students will have already had all, or most, of the material tested by the end of sophomore year. Students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD may find that devoting the summer before junior year to prep, then taking the test for the first time in the fall of junior year is a smart choice. Late-spring test dates frequently conflict with finals, AP exams, and end-of-year activities, so students shouldn’t wait if they don’t have to!

Beyond test content and timing, students should consider test accommodations when choosing a test. In some cases, accommodations may trump test preference (i.e., the SAT with accommodations could be a better choice than the ACT without them, even if a student preferred the ACT). Many students discover that the ACT’s accommodations are particularly helpful if they are available.

Above all, remember that college admissions exams are only one part of your application. They deserve some time and effort, but they won’t make or break the rest of your life. Students can be particularly prone to feelings of anxiety when taking tests, so it’s important to be prepared and keep the big picture in mind. There is a college out there for everyone, and students who work hard will get a great education no matter which school they attend. Good luck!

For more information on SAT vs. ACT, explore "ACT and SAT Accommodations: One Size Does Not Fit All."

Jenn Cohen is an online SAT/ACT tutor specializing in working with ADHD/LD students. You can find her on the web at satprepforadhd.com.

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