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

05/07/202433 minute read
SAT vs. ACT: What's The Difference And Which Test Should You Take?

While many colleges adopted test-optional policies, many have begun reinstating the SATs or ACTs as a requirement.

Even for colleges where the tests aren't mandatory, these scores can boost scholarship chances, strengthen applications, and meet specific program requirements. If you're taking one, the big question is: SAT or ACT?

In this post, we'll break down the key differences of SAT vs ACT and the little details that matter. 


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 Question98215ACT has more questions overall
Length of Assessment2 hours 14 mins2 hours 55 minsACT is slightly longer
Scoring Scale400-16001-36-
Test FormatDigitalDigital or Pencil and PaperNot all ACT testing centers offer a digital test
Test DatesSeven times per yearSeven times per yearSee specific websites for dates
Required Sections- Reading & Writing - MathEnglish, Math, Reading, ScienceACT includes a dedicated science section
Cost$68$68 (no writing) $93 (with writing)-
Optional SectionsNoneWriting (Essay)SAT no longer provides an optional essay section
PacingMORE time per questionLESS time per question-
Testing AgencyCollege BoardACT-
Guessing Penalty?NoNo-

SAT vs ACT: Key Differences

1. Structure

The SAT has 98 questions and is overall a shorter test, clocking in at 2 hours 14 mins, while the ACT is about 40 minutes longer with more questions.

ACT:

The ACT consists of 4 mandatory sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, with an optional essay section.

The ACT is a linear test; how well you do in one section doesn't affect the questions on the later sections.

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.

ACT Structure
Test SubjectNumber of QuestionsMinutes
English7545
Mathematics6060
Reading4035
Science4035
Writing (optional)1 essay40

SAT:

The SAT consists of two sections, the Reading & Writing section and the Math Section.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT features adaptive difficulty. Each section is split into two different modules, and how well you do on the first module determines the difficulty of the questions in the second one.

SAT questions frequently involve multiple logical steps, with the need to analyze longer, denser text passages. Rushing can easily lead to errors.

SAT Structure
Test SubjectNumber of QuestionsMinutes
Reading and Writing 1st Module 2732
Reading and Writing 2nd Module2732
Math 1st Module2235
Math 2nd Module2235
  • Find out how many times you can take the SAT or ACT

2. Scoring

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.

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

3. Science Section

The ACT has a dedicated science section, while the SAT has questions in its reading section that assesses your science skills.

ACT:

The ACT's science section 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:

On the other hand, the science-like analysis will weave throughout other SAT sections without explicitly assessing you on science. Passages may include research studies and graphs across various disciplines.

Which Suits You Better?

  • ACT if you have strong memory, but weaker 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.
  • SAT if 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.

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

4.  Math Section

Both the SAT and ACT math questions test high school-level math skills. With that said, the questions and topics vary.

ACT:

The ACT has wider variety in its math questions. It has more question types, and covers a wider range of topics in what questions might show up.

The ACT also has more questions in trigonometry and geometry, and emphasizes visual problem-solving.

While your calculator is a handy tool, relying on it too heavily can leave you stuck if your underlying number sense is shaky.

SAT:

The SAT has a smaller sample set of things it asks about, and because there's a fewer type of items, some students might find it easier to study for the SATs.

The SAT has a much stronger focus on algebra questions compared to the ACT. If that's your strong point, the SAT is definitely the better test to take.

The SAT tests some higher-level concepts not found on the ACT, such as imaginary numbers and complex functions.

Which Suits You Better?

  • ACT math problems often lead to quicker elimination of obviously wrong answers. On the other hand, the SAT tends to reward clever thinkers who think in shortcuts.
  • ACT if you're strong in geometry: 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.
  • SAT if you struggle with studying for math tests: the smaller range of topics SAT math pulls its questions from makes it easier to study and prepare for, even if some of the questions might be more advanced.

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!

5. Reading/Writing/English Sections:

The SAT offers Reading and Writing in one section, while the ACT offers English as a section, and Reading as a separate section.

ACT:

The ACT's has page-long passages. While the passages are longer, they're fewer. You can focus on the full passage and fully understand it while answering questions.

Despite the passages being longer, the ACT's reading level could be lower than the SATs, and the English section has easier grammar questions.

SAT:

On the other hand, the SAT has shorter, more varied passages, and so it requires you to re-focus on different topics as you go.

SAT reading level could be harder compared to the ACT's, and its passages might contain poetry as well.

The SAT's reading section might also include tougher grammar questions with a higher level of precision.

Which Suits You Better?

  • The ACT if you prefer longer passages and relatively easier grammar questions
  • The SAT if you have a higher reading level and better command of the language

6. Essay Section (ACT Only)

The ACT's optional essay gives you a unique platform that the SAT no longer offers. While not required by 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.
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SAT vs ACT: Similarities

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.
  • 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.

Which Test Should I Choose, SAT or ACT?

Now that you know the differences, should you take the ACT or SAT?

The best way to choose between the SAT and ACT is to take multiple practice tests. We strongly recommend taking the test under real testing conditions (with a timer!) to get a proper feel for how the test goes.

Another thing you can do is to read through our list of differences above and give a point to whichever test suits you best in each section.

Consider the following points when making a decision:

  • 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.

Which Test is Easier?

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. Tests might have easier sections, but overall, their difficulty is the same.

Here's why "easy" is the wrong question to ask:

  • 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.

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

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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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