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

Choosing between the SAT and ACT is a choice that many students face, even though many US colleges have now adopted test optional policies. Despite this, the SAT and ACT still hold significant weight in the college admissions process, potentially boosting scholarship opportunities and strengthening applications.

Both exams aim to predict college success, covering similar ground with unique challenges. While the SAT once focused on academic aptitude and the ACT on in depth analysis the lines between the two have become more similar over time. If you’re struggling to choose between the SAT and ACT, rest assured you’re not alone.

In our ACT vs SAT guide we demystify the differences and similarities between the ACT and SAT, offering insights into each test’s format, content, scoring system, and the strategic considerations students should make when choosing which test to pursue. Keep reading to make an informed decision about whether you should choose the ACT or SAT.

SAT vs. ACT Overview

The ACT and SAT are both standardised tests that play a pivotal role in the college and university admissions process in the United States. Both tests serve as a metric for evaluating a student’s readiness for college-level work, offering colleges and universities a common data point that can be used to compare all applicants. 

While both tests are generally considered equal by most universities, they differ significantly in structure, content, and style. Understanding these similarities and differences is essential, as it can help students determine which test might better showcase their abilities.

Test Duration3 hours2 hours 55 minutesClose in length, highlighting the intensive nature of both exams.
Number of Questions154215Despite a higher question count, ACT’s slightly shorter duration demands faster pacing.
SectionsReading, Writing & Language, Math (with and without calculator)English, Math, Reading, ScienceACT includes a unique Science section; SAT focuses on calculator and no-calculator Math sections.
Optional SectionsNoneWriting (Essay)The Essay section on the ACT is optional, providing an opportunity for students to showcase writing skills.
Scoring Scale400–16001–36Different scoring scales reflect the distinct approaches each test takes to assess student ability.
Test FormatOnline or Pencil and PaperOnline or Pencil and Paper (International); fully online starting Spring 2024 (US & some international locations)Reflects the evolving nature of standardized testing towards digital formats.
PacingSlightly more time per questionSlightly less time per questionA critical factor for students who might prefer or perform better under different time pressures.
Cost$60.00$63.00The cost is relatively similar, making the choice between tests more dependent on student preference and strengths.
Guessing PenaltyNoNoEncourages students to attempt all questions without fear of penalties for incorrect answers.
Test DatesSeven times per yearSeven times per yearOffers multiple opportunities for taking or retaking the exams.
Testing AgencyCollege BoardACTKnowing the administering body can help in finding more specific information and resources.
Preparation ResourcesSAT Practice Tests, Khan AcademyACT Academy, Official Practice TestsBoth tests have extensive resources available for preparation.

ACT and SAT Similarities

Accepted by Colleges and Universities

Both the ACT and SAT are widely accepted by colleges and universities across the United States. Institutions of higher education do not have a preference for one test over the other, treating scores from both exams equally in the admissions process. This universal acceptance means students can choose the test that best suits their skills and preparation without worrying about limiting their college options.

Core Sections

Both exams cover essential academic disciplines such as reading, writing, and mathematics. By testing these fundamental skills, the ACT and SAT provide insights into students’ aptitude across key areas of study.

Test Dates

Both exams are offered multiple times a year at designated testing centres around the world. The choice between the ACT and SAT often comes down to personal preference, with some students finding one test’s format or content more to their liking. Understanding the unique aspects of each test is crucial for students as they decide which exam best aligns with their strengths and academic goals.

Timing and Test Length

Both the SAT and ACT take a similar amount of time to complete (around three hours, not including breaks). Timing is a critical factor in both the ACT and SAT. Students must manage their time effectively to complete each section within the allocated time frame. Developing time-management skills is essential for maximising performance on either exam.

No Wrong Answer Penalty

Both the ACT and SAT have eliminated the penalty for incorrect answers. This scoring policy encourages students to attempt every question without fear of losing points for wrong answers, ultimately allowing for a more strategic approach to test-taking.


Many colleges and universities practise superscoring for both the ACT and SAT. Superscoring involves combining the highest section scores from multiple test dates to create a new, higher composite score. This policy benefits students who take the test more than once, allowing them to focus on improving specific areas without worrying about other sections’ scores decreasing.

Understanding the similarities of the SAT and ACT is crucial because they underscore the important areas of assessment that colleges consider when evaluating a student’s application. Whether a student chooses the ACT or SAT, they’re undergoing a thorough evaluation designed to test the skills needed for success in college and beyond. 

That being said, it’s vital for students to research the specific requirements and preferences of the colleges they’re interested in. Some universities may prefer one test over the other or have specific score requirements for admissions, so thorough research and consideration are essential.

ACT and SAT Differences

While the ACT and SAT share some overarching similarities, a closer examination reveals distinct differences in how each test approaches certain subjects and scoring. Understanding these nuances can help students decide which test plays to their strengths.

ACT Composite ScoreSAT Composite Score Equivalent



  • The SAT math section covers algebra, problem solving and data analysis, advanced math topics, and additional topics such as geometry and trigonometry. It often emphasises real-world applications and problem-solving skills. 
  • The ACT math section covers pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry. It includes a broader range of math topics compared to the SAT, with a focus on testing mathematical knowledge and problem-solving abilities.


  • The SAT math section consists of two sections, one allows the use of a calculator, and the other does not. The calculator portion assesses students’ ability to solve problems using mathematical concepts and tools, while the no-calculator portion evaluates fluency in arithmetic and algebraic operations.
  • The ACT math section allows the use of a calculator for all questions. It presents questions in a more straightforward manner, typically requiring less complex calculations compared to the SAT.

Question Style

  • SAT math questions often involve multi-step problem-solving, data analysis, and application of mathematical concepts in real-world contexts. Questions may require students to interpret graphs, charts, and data sets to solve problems.
  • ACT math questions are generally more straightforward and direct, focusing on testing students’ understanding of mathematical concepts and procedures. Questions may involve solving equations, evaluating expressions, and applying geometric principles.


  • The SAT math section provides more time per question compared to the ACT, allowing students to approach questions with a more deliberate pace.
  • The ACT math section is known for its faster pacing, with less time allotted per question, requiring students to work efficiently and make quick decisions.

Reading Writing/English

Reading Section

  • The SAT reading section consists of five passages, including one passage from U.S. or world literature, one passage from history or social studies, one passage from science, and two passages from either literature, history, social studies, or science. Questions focus on understanding and analysing passages, identifying evidence, and interpreting data.
  • The ACT reading section includes four passages, covering prose fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences. Questions assess comprehension, reasoning, and analysis skills, requiring students to locate specific information, make inferences, and understand the author’s purpose and tone.

Writing/English Section

  • The SAT writing and language section contains four passages with accompanying multiple-choice questions. Questions assess grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills. Students must identify errors and improve sentence structure and organisation.
  • The ACT English section evaluates students’ grammar, punctuation, usage, and sentence structure through multiple-choice questions. It also assesses rhetorical skills, including strategy, organisation, and style. Questions focus on improving writing by revising and editing passages for clarity and effectiveness.

Passage Complexity

  • SAT passages tend to be longer and more complex, often featuring dense language and challenging vocabulary. Questions may require students to analyse subtleties in tone, style, and argumentation.
  • ACT passages are typically shorter and more straightforward, with a focus on assessing fundamental reading and writing skills. Questions may involve identifying main ideas, supporting details, and logical relationships within the text.


  • The SAT provides more time per question compared to the ACT, allowing students to approach each question with more deliberation and precision.
  • The ACT has a faster pace, with less time allotted per question. Students must work efficiently to manage their time effectively and complete the section within the allotted time frame.


The SAT does not have a dedicated science section like the ACT. However, the SAT may include science-related questions within the reading and writing sections. These questions typically require students to analyse data, interpret scientific information, and draw conclusions from experimental results presented in passages.

On the other hand, the ACT includes a distinct science section, which is unique to this exam. Here are some of the ACT science section:

  • Format and Structure: The ACT science section consists of 40 multiple-choice questions to be completed in 35 minutes. It includes seven passages, each followed by a series of questions. The passages cover various scientific disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth/space sciences.
  • Content Focus: The ACT science section emphasises critical thinking, data analysis, and scientific reasoning skills. It assesses students’ ability to interpret graphs, tables, charts, and experimental setups, as well as their understanding of scientific concepts and methodologies.
  • Question Types: Questions in the ACT science section may ask students to analyse experimental data, make predictions based on scientific principles, evaluate hypotheses, and draw conclusions from evidence presented in the passages.
  • Time Constraints: With 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, the ACT science section requires students to work efficiently and manage their time effectively to complete all questions within the allotted time.


The ACT offers an optional essay section, providing students with a platform that the SAT no longer includes. While not mandatory for all colleges, a strong essay score on the ACT can enhance your application in several ways. If you excel in writing but your standardised test scores don’t fully reflect it, the essay allows you to showcase your critical thinking and persuasive skills in a different format. In addition, some scholarships prioritise writing proficiency, making the ACT essay an important way to demonstrate your abilities.

That being said, if adding the essay section means sacrificing study time for the core test, consider skipping it unless a specific school requires it. If persuasive writing is a challenge for you, it may be better to focus on maximising your performance in other sections rather than risking a low essay score.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT no longer includes an essay section. While the SAT essay is no longer a factor, students should focus on maximising their performance in other sections of the SAT. Despite the absence of an essay section, admissions officers still value strong writing skills demonstrated throughout the application, including in essays, personal statements, and supplemental materials. Similar to the ACT, if your target schools have a strong emphasis on test-optional policies, prioritise other aspects of your application beyond standardised test scores.

Time Limit

  • Students have 50 minutes to complete the SAT essay. They must read the provided passage, analyse the author’s argument, plan and write their response, and revise their essay within the allotted time.
  • Students have 40 minutes to complete the ACT essay. They must read the prompt, evaluate the perspectives provided, formulate their own argument, and write their essay within the time constraint.

Prompt Style

  • The SAT essay presents students with a passage or argumentative text and requires them to analyse how the author builds their argument. Students are expected to identify persuasive elements such as evidence, reasoning, and stylistic devices used by the author to support their claims.
  • ACT Writing (Essay): The ACT essay presents students with a contemporary issue or topic and provides three different perspectives on it. Students are tasked with evaluating these perspectives, articulating their own viewpoint, and analysing the relationship between their perspective and those presented.

Scoring Criteria

  • The SAT essay is scored on three dimensions: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Each dimension is scored on a scale of 2 to 8, resulting in a total score ranging from 6 to 24. Scorers assess the strength of the student’s analysis, the effectiveness of their use of evidence and reasoning, and the clarity and coherence of their writing.
  • The ACT essay is scored on four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. Each domain is scored on a scale of 2 to 12, and the four domain scores are averaged to produce a final score ranging from 2 to 12. Scorers evaluate the student’s ability to develop and support their argument, organise their ideas effectively, and demonstrate control of language.

Pacing and Strategy


SAT: Generally offers more time per question compared to the ACT. Students have about 1 minute and 10 seconds per question on the Reading and Writing sections, and about 1 minute and 30 seconds per question on the Math section.

ACT: Known for its faster pacing, especially in the Reading and Science sections. Students have about 35 minutes to complete 40 questions in the Reading section and 35 minutes to complete 40 questions in the Science section. The Math section allows approximately 1 minute per question.


SAT: Requires a more thoughtful approach to answering questions, particularly in the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections. Math questions may require more steps to reach an answer, and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section often involves nuanced comprehension and analysis of texts. Essay prompts on the SAT focus on analysing how authors construct arguments or present ideas, requiring students to cite evidence and analyse rhetorical devices.

ACT: Known for its faster pace, demanding quick reading and efficient analysis of information, particularly in the Reading and Science sections. Math questions on the ACT are more straightforward, with a focus on solving problems efficiently within the given time frame. Science section questions require interpretation of data, understanding experimental designs, and critical analysis of hypotheses, but do not necessarily require specific science knowledge.


ACT Scoring

Composite Score: The ACT composite score is the average of the four section scores (English, Math, Reading, and Science), each ranging from 1 to 36. The composite score also ranges from 1 to 36 and is rounded to the nearest whole number. This score gives colleges a quick understanding of a student’s overall performance.

Writing Score: The optional Writing (Essay) section is scored separately on a scale of 2 to 12. This score does not affect the composite score but is reported alongside it, providing additional context about a student’s writing skills.

Subscores: The ACT also provides subscores in English, Math, and Reading that range from 1 to 18. These subscores give more detailed insights into specific areas within these subjects.

SAT Scoring

Total Score: The SAT total score ranges from 400 to 1600 and is the sum of two section scores: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math, each ranging from 200 to 800. This total score offers a broad overview of a student’s capabilities.

Essay Score: Like the ACT, the SAT Essay (now discontinued) was scored separately and did not contribute to the total score. It was reported on three dimensions—Reading, Analysis, and Writing—each scored between 2 and 8.

Subscores: The SAT provides several subscores for the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math sections, ranging from 1 to 15. These subscores offer more granular feedback on specific skills, such as command of evidence and words in context.

Should I take the ACT or SAT?

Deciding whether to take the ACT or the SAT is a significant decision for high school students planning to apply to colleges. This choice can influence not only how they prepare for college admissions tests but also where they might have the best chance to showcase their strengths. Here are several factors to consider when making this decision:

Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Maths Skills: If you excel in maths, particularly in a broad range of topics including algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, you might find the ACT to be more suited to your strengths due to its wider coverage of mathematical concepts. If you’re strong in algebra and data analysis but less so in geometry, the SAT might play to your strengths, especially with its no-calculator section.

Science Reasoning: If you have strong analytical and interpretation skills, especially in scientific contexts, you might perform well on the ACT’s Science section, which doesn’t require specific knowledge in biology, chemistry, or physics but assesses your ability to interpret data and experimental results.

Reading and Writing: If you have strong reading comprehension skills and can analyse and synthesise information efficiently, you might excel at the SAT’s evidence-based reading and writing section. The ACT’s reading section is more about speed and less about deep analysis, which might suit fast readers.

Essay Writing: Although the essay sections are optional and structured differently on both tests, your preference for analytical writing (analysing an argument on the SAT) versus persuasive writing (presenting your perspective on an issue on the ACT) can also influence your decision.

Consider Your College Plans

Research the testing preferences of the colleges you’re interested in. While most schools accept scores from both tests equally, some students might find advantages in taking one test over the other based on specific college requirements or the states they’re applying to, as some regions have a historical preference for one test.

Take Practice Tests

The best way to decide between the ACT and SAT is to take timed practice tests for both. This experience can give you a sense of which test format and question style you’re more comfortable with and which one best complements your test-taking strategies.

Reflect on the Test-taking Experience

Pacing: The ACT is known for its fast pacing, especially in the Reading and Science sections. If you prefer a test that allows more time to consider your answers, the SAT might be more suitable.

Question Style: SAT questions often require more steps to reach an answer and can be more nuanced, particularly in the Math section. If you prefer more straightforward questions, even under tighter time constraints, the ACT might play to your strengths.

Ace the SAT with our free SAT question bank

Want to take a free practice test? Check out our free SAT Question Bank.

Time and Resources for Preparation

Consider how much time you have to prepare for the test and the resources available to you. Each test requires a different preparation strategy to tackle its unique format and question types effectively.

Making an informed choice between the ACT and SAT involves understanding your academic strengths, how you test under timed conditions, and what each test measures. By considering these factors and utilising practice tests, you can select the exam that best aligns with your skills and maximises your potential for college admissions success.Increase your chances of success by seeking expert ACT and SAT preparation support →

Prepare To Take The ACT and SAT

The journey of deciding between the ACT and SAT is a personal one, influenced by a student’s academic strengths, test-taking preferences, strategic decision making and college aspirations. 

In making this decision, it’s crucial for students to:

  • Evaluate Their Strengths and Preferences: Understand whether their skills align more closely with the content and style of the ACT or SAT.
  • Consider College Requirements and Recommendations: Research the testing preferences of their target colleges, especially in light of the increasing prevalence of test-optional policies.
  • Practice and Prepare Strategically: Utilise official practice materials and consider test preparation resources to improve their performance.
  • Stay Informed About Trends: Keep up with changes in the testing landscape, including digital testing initiatives and shifts in college admissions policies, to make informed decisions.

As students begin to prepare for the ACT and SAT, they should remember that while standardised test scores are an important aspect of college applications, they are just one part of a holistic review process that considers a wide range of factors. Ultimately, the goal is to find a college that is the right fit for your academic and personal development.

For students looking for comprehensive support and guidance when applying to US and Ivy league colleges, visit our Ivy League Admissions Consultants page and discover how we can support you with every aspect of the admissions process.

In addition, we also offer SAT and ACT test preparation, Ivy League tutoring, mentoring and private consultations.


Yes, you can submit scores from both tests to colleges. Some students choose to do this if they have strong scores on both exams. It’s important to check each college’s policy on score submission, as they may have specific guidelines or preferences.

Colleges typically view ACT and SAT scores as one component of a holistic admissions process, which may also consider high school GPA, coursework difficulty, essays, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and interviews. Scores can provide a standardised measure of academic readiness, but their importance varies by institution, especially with the increase in test-optional policies.

Taking the ACT or SAT more than once can offer several advantages, including the opportunity to improve your score and the potential benefit of superscoring. Many students find that their scores increase on a second attempt due to increased familiarity with the test format and reduced anxiety.

Consider your academic strengths, test-taking preferences, and the requirements or recommendations of your target colleges. Practice tests for both the ACT and SAT can also provide insight into which test aligns better with your skills and testing style.

At test-optional colleges, students have the choice to submit ACT or SAT scores if they believe the scores accurately reflect their academic abilities. If submitted, scores will be considered as part of the admissions process. However, students who choose not to submit scores will not be penalised, and other aspects of their application will receive more weight.

Superscoring involves combining the highest scores from multiple test dates to create a new, higher score. Many colleges offer superscoring for the ACT, SAT, or both, but policies vary. It’s beneficial to check with individual colleges to understand their specific superscoring policies.

Effective preparation includes familiarising yourself with the test format and content, practising with real test questions, developing a study schedule, focusing on your weak areas, and considering test prep resources such as books, online courses, or tutoring. Also, taking care of your physical and mental health is crucial for optimal performance.

It’s generally recommended to start preparing three to six months before your test date. This allows sufficient time to review all necessary content, take practice tests, and address any areas of weakness.

Additional Resources

As you prepare to make an informed decision between the ACT and SAT test, having access to a variety of resources can significantly enhance your readiness and confidence. Here’s a compilation of additional resources that can support you through every step of the process:

ACT Resources:

ACT Official Website: Offers registration details, test prep, practice tests, and tips directly from the test makers.

ACT Academy: Provides free personalised learning tools and practice resources tailored to your test preparation needs.

SAT Resources:

College Board Official SAT Practice: In partnership with Khan Academy, offers free personalised practice plans based on your PSAT/NMSQT or previous SAT scores.

SAT Practice Tests: Access full-length practice tests to simulate the test day experience.

Test Preparation Courses and Books

  • Khan Academy: Offers free, personalised practice for the SAT, including interactive problems, video lessons, and full-length practice tests.
  • Princeton Review and Kaplan: Both provide comprehensive test prep courses for the ACT and SAT, including live classes, online resources, and practice tests. They also publish widely used test prep books that are updated regularly to reflect the latest test formats and questions.

College Admissions and Test Strategy Guides

  • College Confidential Forums: A platform where students, parents, and admissions experts share advice, experiences, and strategies for standardised tests and college admissions.
  • FairTest: Offers an up-to-date list of test-optional schools and articles on the movement toward test-optional admissions policies.
  • The College Panda: Specialises in SAT and ACT maths preparation, offering books and online resources to strengthen maths skills and strategies.

YouTube Channels for Test Prep

  • SupertutorTV: Offers tips and strategies for both the ACT and SAT, including breakdowns of practice questions and advice on the college admissions process.
  • Magoosh High School: Provides video lessons on a wide range of topics for ACT and SAT preparation, including study schedules, test-taking strategies, and breakdowns of practice questions.

Mental Health and Stress Management

  • Headspace and Calm: Both offer meditation and mindfulness practices to help manage test anxiety and improve focus during your study sessions.

College Admissions Blogs and Newsletters

  • The New York Times College Admissions: Offers articles and advice on navigating the college admissions process, including standardised testing.
  • NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling): Provides insights into college admissions trends, including standardised testing and policy changes.

Leveraging these resources can provide you with a wealth of knowledge and tools to effectively prepare for the ACT or SAT. Whether you’re looking for in-depth content review, strategy optimization, or stress management techniques, there’s a resource out there to meet your needs. Remember, the key to success is starting early, staying consistent in your preparation, and using the right tools to support your journey to achieving your college admissions goals.