SAT vs. ACT: What's The Difference And Which Test Should You Take?

20/02/202431 minute read
SAT vs. ACT: What's The Difference And Which Test Should You Take?

The SAT and ACT exams are remarkably similar and hold equal weight with colleges. Deciding between the SAT vs. ACT depends on your strengths and learning style. The ACT features a science section and slightly faster pacing, while the SAT emphasizes in-depth analysis and includes a no-calculator math section. The best way to determine which test suits you is to take timed practice tests for both and see where you naturally excel.


Test-optional is everywhere, but millions of students still sweat over the SAT or ACT. Why?  Even without being mandatory, these scores can boost scholarship chances, strengthen applications, and satisfy specific programs. If you're taking one, the big question is: SAT or ACT?

In this post, we'll break down the key similarities and the little details that matter.  We'll also discuss trends like online testing and why these 'optional' tests hold importance.

The good news is that colleges today treat the SAT and ACT practically the same.  Both tests cover similar ground to help colleges predict your college success. Originally, the SAT was considered more of an academic aptitude test, while the ACT was intended more as a placement test gauging mastery of high school concepts. Today,  these distinctions have largely blurred.

SAT vs. ACT Overview
SATACTNotes
Number of Question154215ACT has more questions overall
Length of Assessment3 hours2 hours 55 mins
Scoring Scale400-16001-36
Test FormatOnline or Pencil and PaperOnline or Pencil and Paper (International); fully online starting Spring 2024 for US & some international test-takersNote format changes
Test DatesSeven times per yearSeven times per yearSee specific websites for dates
Required SectionsReading, Writing & Language, Math (with/without calculator)English, Math, Reading, ScienceACT includes a dedicated science section
Cost (required sections only)$60.00$63.00
Optional SectionsNoneWriting (Essay)
PacingSlightly MORE time per questionSlightly LESS time per questionThis impacts pacing
Testing AgencyCollege BoardACT
Guessing Penalty?NoNo
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Similarities Between the SAT and ACT

Most universities generally view the SAT and ACT as interchangeable. It's important to remember this before stressing about their differences! Here's what these tests have in common:

  • College Readiness Assessment: Both provide colleges with a standardized picture of your academic skills and knowledge, especially in reading, writing, and mathematics.
  • Test Structure & Length: They take a similar amount of time to complete (around three hours, not including breaks) and generally cover the same core subject areas.
  • Timing Matters: High school juniors and seniors are the typical target test-takers. Registration for both opens roughly a month before each test date.
  • No Wrong Answer Penalty: You're not docked extra points for guessing wrong. This means educated guesses can be beneficial on both!
  • Superscoring: Both the SAT and ACT offer "superscoring", allowing colleges to look at your best section scores across multiple test dates.

Remember: Stressing over one test versus the other usually isn't productive. Once you grasp how they differ, pick the one that fits your strengths better, not just its reputation!

Now that you understand these tests have more in common than you might guess let's dig into where the crucial differences lie.

Key Differences between the SAT and ACT to consider

1. Scoring

Is a perfect 1600 better than a 36? The truth about SAT vs. ACT scoring might surprise you! After completing the SAT, you receive a score between 400 and 1600, whereas the ACT scores are between 1 and 36.  Don't fixate on these looking so different! Colleges use conversion charts to compare them side-by-side when reviewing applications.

What matters more is how well you do compared to other test-takers. It's about percentile rankings that show where you fall in the nationwide pool of students.

Learn more about good SAT and ACT scores and how to achieve them!

ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart
ACT Composite ScoreSAT Composite Score
361600
351560-1590
341520-1550
331490-1510
321450-1480
311420-1440
301390-1410
291350-1380
281310-1340
271280-1300
261240-1270
251200-1230
241160-1190
231130-1150
221100-1120
211060-1090
201020-1050
19980-1010
18940-970
17900-930
16860-890
15810-850
14760-800
13720-750
12630-710
11560-620

SAT vs ACT: How Different are the Questions with Jamie Beaton

2. Science Section

The biggest distinction between the tests is the ACT's dedicated Science section. Think of it this way:

ACT Science

This tests your ability to quickly interpret data, understand experimental setups, and spot conflicting scientific viewpoints. You won't need to recall a ton of memorized biology or chemistry facts.

If reading charts stresses you out more than science terms, this section might be rough even with extra time.

SAT Blending Science into Everything

The science-like analysis will weave throughout other SAT sections. Passages may include research studies and graphs across various disciplines.

Even if you hate traditional "science" classes, if you find analytical reading enjoyable, your strengths could shine on the SAT despite its lack of a dedicated science section.

SAT Science question found in the Maths testExample of a SAT Science question found in the Maths Section

Which suits you better? Consider...

  • Strong Recall, Weak Analysis: The ACT's dedicated section might be an advantage if you have strong science fact recall but struggle with fast reading and interpreting experiments.
  • Analysis is Your Strength: If you excel at critical thinking and evidence-finding within long passages, science concepts within SAT reading & writing may be less daunting.

Important Note: Neither test requires specific science coursework. They're about thinking like a scientist, not regurgitating knowledge.

3.  Math Section

Ever blank out on 'easy' formulas mid-test, even though you studied? That panic matters more than SAT vs. ACT difficulty when it comes to your score! Both tests cover core high school math concepts, but the emphasis and question style vary:

SAT Math: Depth and a No-Calculator Twist

The SAT tests some higher-level concepts not found on the ACT, such as imaginary numbers and complex functions. Plus, expect a dedicated no-calculator section to ensure mental math and formula awareness play a role.

If you freeze under time pressure, having memorized complex ideas won't matter when basic steps desert you!

SAT Math question exampleSAT Math Question

ACT Math: Geometry, Trigonometry, and Beyond

The ACT emphasizes visual problem-solving, including a healthy dose of geometry. You'll encounter shapes, angles, graphs, and some basic trigonometry. While your calculator is a handy tool, relying on it too heavily can leave you stuck if your underlying number sense is shaky.

Like geometry, but hate word problems? The ACT has shorter passages compared to the SAT.

ACT Math question exampleACT Math Question

The 'Gut Feeling' Difference

Our Crimson strategist notes that ACT math problems often lead to quicker elimination of obviously wrong answers or even educated guesses.

SAT math is generally considered to require more step-by-step solving to arrive at the correct solution. This gut feeling aspect has HUGE implications for which test lets your individual strengths shine.

If you are a student who thrives on quick pattern recognition and mental math, the ACT format could be your best bet. On the other hand, if you prefer a structured approach where careful calculation is key, you might find the SAT more in line with your problem-solving style.

Which is better for you? Consider…

  • Calculator Comfort: Are you quick and accurate with a calculator, or do you rely on it too heavily for basic computations? Your answer impacts which test's structure favors you.
  • Geometry Fan or Foe: If geometry is your strength, the ACT might play to your skills. If you struggle with geometric concepts, the SAT's reduced emphasis on it might be helpful.

Important Note: No matter the test, a strong foundation in core Algebra is essential for both. Don't neglect basic skills if either score is your goal!

4. Essay Section (ACT Only)

The ACT's optional essay gives you a unique platform that the SAT no longer offers. While not required by all colleges, a strong essay score can boost your application for several reasons:

  • Beyond Test Scores: If you're an excellent writer but standardized test scores don't fully reflect it, the essay showcases your critical thinking and persuasive skills in a different format.
  • Holistic Application: Admissions officers like seeing how you structure an argument, use evidence, and communicate complex ideas – skills essential to college success.
  • Scholarship Factor: Some scholarships emphasize writing prowess, and the essay is a prime way to demonstrate that.

But... Not Everyone Needs It! Consider this:

  • Tight Deadlines: If adding the essay means less study time for the core test, skip it unless a target school mandates it.
  • Weak Writer: If persuasive writing is a struggle, focusing on maximizing your other sections is better than risking a low essay score.
  • "Test Optional" Trend: If your list is heavily test-optional schools, spend effort elsewhere unless you thrive at argumentative writing.

Key Takeaway: The ACT essay should be an advantage, not a source of stress.  Know your target schools' requirements and be realistic about your prep!

5. Pacing and Strategy: It's Not Just About Time

The SAT gives you slightly more time per question than the ACT.  But beware, this doesn't necessarily make it  "easier."

  • SAT is a Thinker's Test: SAT questions frequently involve multiple logical steps, with the need to analyze longer, denser text passages. Rushing can easily lead to errors.
  • ACT is Where Speed Matters: The ACT demands quick information processing, especially in science and reading. You need to move through data interpretation and graphs briskly. Sometimes, eliminating obvious wrong choices gets you the answer even without deep understanding.

Deciding What Fits Your Thinking Style

  • Deep Thinking, Not Pressure: If you excel at thorough analysis, don't feel rushed by the SAT pacing. Practice tests will reveal if you truly have time to grapple with the tougher problems.
  • Quick Processing Your Strength? If analysis bogs you down, but you work through basic math accurately and find yourself spotting incorrect answers easily, the ACT's time limits might be less intimidating.

Key Takeaway:  Time limits matter, but so does your way of thinking. Take practice tests of BOTH formats under timed conditions to get a realistic picture of your comfort levels. This is more significant than the average seconds per question!

Which Test Should I Choose, SAT or ACT?

The best way to choose between the SAT and ACT is to consider your individual strengths, weaknesses, and preferred test-taking style.

Students who enjoy writing, literature, and verbal communication tend to prefer the ACT. Those more mathematically minded may prefer the SAT. Our experts recommend students take a practice version of both tests in order to determine which one they prefer.

The "Easier" Test Myth

It's tempting to want the answer to "Which test is easier?"  There's a lot riding on a good score! Here's the truth: "Easy" depends on your individual strengths and weaknesses, not some universal definition.

Why "Easy" Is the Wrong Question

  • Score Scales Don't Matter: Colleges understand a 36 is NOT the same as a 1600. They convert everything for comparison, so one test having a lower possible score shouldn't fool you!
  • Subject Strengths Shape Everything: If you struggle with quick geometry calculations, the ACT's emphasis on that, even with a calculator, won't feel easy. However, someone who is slow at in-depth passage analysis will be less daunted by SAT Reading's longer texts.
  • It's About How You Think: Rush through math for a 'gut feeling' answers? ACT might play to that. Need time to dissect complex ideas carefully? The SAT could be a better fit.

So, How DO I Decide?

Instead of looking for "easier,"  think more strategically:

  • Know Your Weaknesses: Be brutally honest. Is it vocab-heavy text that trips you up? Basic algebra where you fumble without a calculator? That's your starting point.
  • Practice Tests Are Revealing: Take FULL practice tests (timed!) of both the SAT and ACT. Your score difference may be small, but where you struggled most matters.
  • It's Not Only About Subject Matter: Did you feel constantly rushed on one test, yet strangely have time to spare on the other? That pacing tells you a lot about your testing style.

The Bottom Line:  Focus on playing to your strengths, not finding some magical "easier"  test. That will maximize your scores more than any shortcuts!

Check out our free SAT and ACT practice tests to get a feel for which test suits you best!

Final Thoughts

The SAT vs. ACT decision can feel overwhelming. But remember, there's no "wrong" answer, only the best fit for YOU. The good news is, you don't have to navigate this alone. Our expert college counselors are ready to help you decipher your practice test results, pinpoint your strengths, and create a personalized test-prep strategy. Book your free consultation today or check out our online SAT & ACT tutoring services and take the first step towards conquering your college admissions goals!

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