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

16/02/202328 minute read
SAT vs. ACT: What's The Difference And Which Test Should You Take?

The ACT and the SAT are both respected and equally recognized by most universities. Colleges use these scores to compare applicants before offering admission to their university. So, which one should you take? At first glance, it’s hard to see their differences. Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the SAT and ACT so you can make the most informed testing decision.

SAT vs. ACT: An Overview

While the SAT and ACT are both standardized exams, they are distinctively different tests that assess a student’s ability and readiness for university. For decades, the SAT and ACT have rivaled each other. The SAT was originally a more psychological test that assesses aptitude for learning, and the ACT, a placement test used as an indicator for academic preparation and achievement.

SAT vs. ACT Overall Comparison
Number of Question215154
Length of Assessment3 hours 35 minutes3 hours 15 minutes
Scoring Scale1-36400-1600
SectionsMath (Calculator and Non-Calculator), Reading and WritingMath, Reading, Writing, and Optional Essay
Test DatesFour times per year – March, May, October, and DecemberSix times per year – February, April, June, July, September, and October
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COVID-19 Impact on the SAT and ACT

Universities re-examined SAT and ACT testing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and testing sites were not available to everyone. The popularity of these tests was already waning, so the pandemic allowed schools to re-evaluate their effectiveness.

With testing options available again, some universities are choosing

  • Test-optional (choose whether or not to submit your scores)
  • Test-blind (schools don’t consider test scores in admissions decisions)
  • Eliminating the test scores from the application

However, completing these tests still helps you stand out from other applicants, especially in test-optional applications. Some schools also use the test scores for class placements.

Find out which universities are going test-optional, test-blind, or test-flexible.

Recently, The College Board announced that students can begin taking the SAT online starting in 2023. Significant changes will be made to the SAT as well, including:

  • A shorter test
  • Additional time given between questions
  • Shorter reading passages
  • Use of calculators for the entire math section

For more information on the SAT going digital, read our blog on Everything You Need to Know About the Digital SAT.

Similarities between the SAT and ACT Tests

similarities between sat vs act

While the tests do not contain the same assessments, the SAT and ACT have several similarities, including:

  • They take over three hours to complete. (The ACT is 15 minutes shorter.)
  • They give colleges a solid overview of each student’s capabilities
  • They cover basic subjects like reading, writing, and mathematics
  • Typically, 3rd and 4th-year high school students take these tests
  • Registration for both opens about one month before the test date
  • Most universities generally accept both
  • Students aren’t penalized for a wrong answer
  • Contain passage-based reading and writing questions

Differences between the SAT and ACT Tests

1. SAT vs. ACT Scores

After completing the SAT, you receive a score between 400 and 1600, whereas the ACT scores are between 1 and 36. While these scoring numbers are different, university admissions use a simple conversion chart to compare test scores with other applicants.

Learn more about what is a good SAT score and ACT score and how you can achieve it.

ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart
ACT Composite ScoreSAT Composite Score

2. Number of Test Questions

The ACT has 215 assessment questions compared to the SAT, which has 154 questions. This difference impacts the timing per section for each assessment.

3. Timing

The SAT gives you more time per section, allowing you to spend longer on each question. However, this may be because SAT questions include more writing and require more problem solving, while ACT questions are more straightforward. For example, the SAT’s reading comprehension section allows about 13 minutes per passage. The ACT only gives you about eight minutes per passage.

4. Test Sections

While both tests cover Math, Reading, and Writing, the ACT also includes a science section. The SAT has an additional non-calculator math section and includes a basic formula page.

Both tests had an optional extended writing section but discontinued this section in June 2021. The ACT now has an optional writing section that includes a prompt. This section allows students to express their personal opinions on a subject and back them up with a convincing argument.

Example ACT Science Section QuestionExample ACT Science Questions

5. Command of Evidence Questions

The SAT and ACT each have a category that assesses reading skills. However, the SAT includes command of evidence questions. These questions rely on your answer to the questions that precede it. You’re required to identify the text that provides the best evidence for your answer by looking at your answer to the previous question.

example sat command of evidence questionExample command of evidence question

Which Is Easier, the SAT or ACT?

which is easier sat or act?

Understandably, this is a common question. You want to take the easier test to have a better chance of a high score. Some people argue that the ACT is easier because it adds up to a lower score. Universities use both tests as academic measures to compare students. They are similar in difficulty with a comparable level of challenge. Most colleges will back this up, stating both tests are equally challenging.

Should I Take The SAT Or ACT?

If both tests are equally challenging, which one should you take? First, evaluate where your natural abilities lie. In general, students who enjoy writing, literature, and verbal communication tend to prefer the ACT. Those more mathematically-minded prefer the SAT.

Strong Math Skills

The SAT math section is split into one calculator and one non-calculator section, with a math formula guide to assist with the problems. These sections contribute to about 50% of your final SAT score.

The ACT only has a calculator section that accounts for about 25% of the overall score. If math is not your strong point, sitting the ACT may be the better option.

Practice Both Tests

If you’re still unsure which test you should take, try taking a practice test for the SAT and ACT. Compare your scores, how you felt about the questions, and which one felt easier for you.

Take Both Tests

There’s nothing wrong with taking both tests. While this means you have to study for both tests, it also means you can submit your best score. While you can take the tests more than once, universities discourage taking the test more than three times.

Do universities prefer the SAT or the ACT?

It depends on the university. Many universities in the United States accept either the SAT or the ACT, and some schools do not have a preference for one test over the other. However, there are a few universities that may have a preference for one test, or require one test over the other for admission.

It is important to check with each university to see if they have any specific requirements or recommendations regarding the SAT and ACT. Some schools may require or recommend one test over the other, or may require or recommend that students take certain subject tests in addition to the SAT or ACT.

Additionally, some universities may consider the optional essay section on the SAT or ACT, while others do not. It is important to check with each university to see if they require or recommend the optional essay section.

Ultimately, you should take the test that you feel most comfortable with and can perform your best on, regardless of which test universities may prefer.

Use our free SAT practice test to start preparing for one of the most important tests you’ll ever take!

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Final Thoughts

The key to achieving success in the SAT or ACT is preparation. If you take steps to prepare for the tests, understand each test’s objective, and choose the one that matches your learning and test style, you have the best chances of succeeding.

Read our blog on How to Study for the SAT to gain your best score.

Our SAT/ACT test prep program is developed by Harvard grads, PhDs and top tutors from around the world. Book a free consultation to learn more about how we can help you prepare for the SAT or ACT tests!

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What Makes Crimson Different

Frequently asked questions about the SAT and ACT

Is the ACT easier than the SAT?

Universities use both tests as academic measures to compare students. They are similar in difficulty with a comparable level of challenge. Most colleges will back this up, stating both tests are equally challenging.

Do colleges prefer the ACT or SAT?

Colleges do not have a preference for one test over another. Students tend to choose a test based on which is popular in their region and their academic learning style.

Do you have to take the SAT and ACT?

No, you do not have to take both the SAT and ACT. All schools accept both SAT and ACT scores but only require you to submit one or the other. If you choose to take both the SAT and ACT, you can submit the stronger score in your college application. If you decide only to take one test, select the one geared more towards your strengths and focus your study time on that test.

What do SAT and ACT stand for?

The SAT originally stood for the “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” As the test evolved, they dropped the name, and it’s now just known as the SAT.

Developed in 1959, the ACT originally stood for “American College Testing.” Over time, they dropped the long name. Now the ACT acronym stands for itself.

Key Resources & Further Reading