If you’re or having a child preparing for college admissions, you might have heard of the SAT and ACT tests, and might be curious about their differences. The SATs and the ACTs are the two different tests that students are required to take for admittance to a US university. When it comes to the SAT vs. the ACT, both exams are widely accepted by U.S. colleges, which often prompts students to ask: Which test should I take?
The answer to that question lies in understanding the differences between the two tests. While both are standardized tests that colleges and universities use as a benchmark when making admissions decisions, there are some differences.
This article will provide you with a brief overview of the basic structural and logistical differences between the ACT and SAT, to help you pick the right one as you get ready to apply to college.
The SAT vs. the ACT
At a glance, the two tests aren’t that different. Both the ACT and SAT are nationally recognized standardized tests and common admission requirements for US schools. Catering primarily to high school juniors and seniors, each test measures students’ proficiency in various critical skill areas – such as problem-solving and reading comprehension – that are necessary for college success.
Because all US colleges and universities accept scores from either the ACT or SAT, there’s no advantage in taking one test over the other. This means you can apply to the same schools, regardless of which test you decide to take.
Despite all these similarities, there are still many ways in which the ACT and SAT differ from each other. For one, the SAT is overall slightly longer than the ACT. What’s more, the number of questions and time limits are different for corresponding sections.
Need a quick side-by-side comparison of the tests? Check out this ACT vs. SAT Comparison Chart.
Type of Test
|Reading: 1, 65-min section; Math: 1, 25-min section (no calculator) & 1, 55-min section (w/ calculator); Writing & Language: 1, 35-min section; Essay: 1, 50-min section (optional)||
|English: 1, 45-min section; Math: 1, 60-min section; Reading: 1, 35-min section; Science: 1, 35-min section; Writing: 1, 40-min essay (optional)|
|Reading, relevant words in context, math, grammar & usage, analytical writing (optional)||
|Grammar & usage, math, reading, science reasoning, and writing (optional)|
|Questions are evidence and context-based in an effort to focus on real-world situations and multi-step problem-solving||
|Straightforward, questions may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher|
|Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing are each scored on a scale of 200-800. Composite SAT score is the sum of the two section scores and ranges from 400-1600||
|English, Math, Reading, and Science scores range from 1-36. Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections; ranges from 1-36|
|No – you do not lose points for incorrect answers||
Penalty for Wrong Answers?
|No – you do not lose points for incorrect answers|
|Yes – you can choose which set(s) of SAT scores to submit to colleges. However, some colleges require or recommend that students submit all scores. Students should review the score-reporting policy of each college to which they plan to apply.||
|Yes – you can choose which set(s) of ACT scores to submit to colleges. However, some colleges require or recommend that students submit all scores. Students should review the score-reporting policy of each college to which they plan to apply.|
|Math questions generally increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section. Reading passage questions generally progress chronologically through the passage, not by difficulty level. Writing & Language passage questions do not progress by difficulty level.||
|For the English and Reading sections, the difficulty level of the questions is random. For the Math section, questions generally increase in difficulty as you progress through the section. For the Science section, passages generally increase in difficulty as you progress through the test, and questions generally become more difficult as you progress through a passage.|
|Arithmetic, problem-solving & data analysis, Heart of algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, and trigonometry; formulas provided||
|Arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry; no formulas are provided|
|Seven times per year: March or April, May, June, August, October, November, December||
|Seven times per year: February, April, June, July, September, October, December|
|Typically about four weeks before the test date||
|Typically about five to six weeks before the test date|
Neither the SAT nor the ACT is harder than the other – but each test benefits a different type of student. It’s essential that you figure out which test is best suited for you, so that you can achieve the highest scores possible.
ACT vs SAT: Which Test Is Right for You?
The best way to decide if taking the SAT, ACT, or both tests is right for you is to take a timed full-length practice test of each type. Since the content and style of the SAT and ACT are very similar, factors like how you handle time pressure and what types of questions you find most challenging can help you determine which test is a better fit.
Another quicker way you can determine which test is right for you is to take a short quiz. In the chart below, check whether you agree or disagree with each statement.
|I struggle with geometry and trigonometry.|
|I am good at solving math problems without a calculator.|
|Science is not my forte.|
|It’s easier for me to analyze something than to explain my opinion.|
|I normally do well on math tests.|
|I can’t recall math formulas easily.|
|I like coming up with my own answers for math questions.|
|Tight time constraints stress me out.|
|I can easily find evidence to back up my answers.|
|Chronologically arranged questions are easier to follow.|
Now, count up your check marks in each column to find out what your score means.
Mostly Agrees — The SAT is your match!
If you agreed with most or all of the above statements, the SAT is what you’ve been looking for. With the SAT, you’ll have more time for each question and won’t need to deal with a pesky science section or a ton of geometry questions.
Mostly Disagrees — The ACT’s the one for you!
If you disagreed with most or all of the statements, you’ll most likely prefer the ACT over the SAT. On the ACT, you’ll never have to come up with your own answers to math problems, and you get to let your opinion shine in your writing.
Equal Agrees and Disagrees — Either test will work!
If you checked “Agree” and “Disagree” an equal number of times, either the ACT or SAT will suit you. Unless you decide to take both, which does sound like a good option considering money and time constraints, try to take the official ACT and SAT practice tests to see which test’s format you’re ultimately more comfortable with.
All colleges require students to take either the SAT or the ACT and submit their scores to their prospective universities. Despite the fact that many U.S. schools are going test-optional, an ACT, or SAT certification is still great-to-have for international students, as this is a concrete data point to compare you among thousands of applicants, and is what makes your application stand out more. There is no advantage of taking one test over another, so it is important to choose the test that is best for you, whether you are a domestic US student or an international student.