SAT vs ACT – What are the Differences and How Are They Scored?


Most colleges in the U.S. require high school applicants to take one of two standardized tests: the SAT or the ACT. Although the tests are very similar, in that they both purport to measure academic ability and feature dozens of questions on math and verbal reasoning, they also have important structural differences and draw on slightly different strengths. As such, it’s a good idea to learn where the SAT and ACT differ before picking one to take.

Take our quick quiz to find out which one is best for you:

ACT vs SAT: How Do They Work?

Both the SAT and ACT undergo periodic changes to improve testing accuracy and make them difficult to game, so the tests aren’t the same beasts every year. Nevertheless, the SAT (which is overseen by the College Board and debuted in 1926) and the ACT (which is overseen by ACT, Inc. and debuted in 1959) each take three to four hours to complete and include timed reading, writing and math sections as well as an optional essay section. In addition, neither test penalizes you for wrong answers.

Time Constraints on the SAT vs. ACT

How long it takes to complete an ACT or SAT test depends on whether you sign up for the optional essay section. The ACT test takes two hours and 55 minutes to complete, with an additional 40 minutes for the essay section, whereas the SAT takes three hours, with an extra 50 minutes for the essay.

In general, the ACT has tighter time constraints for each section than the SAT, with an average of 50 seconds per question to the SAT’s 70. The English section of the ACT allots 45 minutes to test-takers, while the Writing and Language portion of the SAT offers 35 minutes. The ACT’s Math section is 60 minutes long, and the SAT’s is 80. For the Reading sections, the ACT and SAT offer 35 and 65 minutes, respectively. Finally, the ACT includes a 35-minute Science section, whereas the SAT does not.

ACT vs SAT: Math Sections

The Math test sections of the SAT and ACT differ a lot. Most crucially, you can use a calculator for all math questions on the ACT, but the SAT forbids calculator use for math problem solving except for in the Calculator subsection of the SAT math section. In terms of content, the SAT leans a tad more heavily on algebra and data analysis, while the ACT emphasizes geometry and trigonometry more. The ACT also includes questions on matrices and logarithms, which the SAT skips completely. In addition, the ACT has 60 math questions, and the SAT has 58.

Another key difference is that the SAT provides over a dozen geometry laws and formulas for test-takers to consult, whereas the ACT expects you to know these by heart. If you like multiple-choice questions, you may prefer ACT math, because all of its questions have five answers from which to choose. By contrast, the SAT has a mix of multiple-choice and grid-in questions. Grid-ins require you to input numerical answers, so you can’t rely as much on luck to get a good SAT math score. The new SAT has harder math questions than previous versions of the test, but the subject matter doesn’t extend beyond advanced algebra and trigonometry.

ACT vs SAT: Reading Sections

The ACT and SAT Reading portions are fairly similar overall. They both present passages of several hundred words each and a battery of follow-up multiple-choice questions to test for reading comprehension. The ACT Reading section, however, doesn’t include evidence-support questions, while the SAT does. Each evidence-support question asks you to find evidence from the passage to support your answer to an earlier question. These question pairs are tricky, because a wrong answer to the initial question usually entails a wrong answer to the supporting one.

However, ACT Reading section questions are tricky in their own way. Unlike the SAT, in which the questions that follow reading passages relate to the passages in sequential order, with the first question typically pertaining to the first paragraph and so on, the reading questions on the ACT aren’t sequential. They’re random. The first question following a passage might discuss the passage’s conclusion, for example. Another difference between the SAT and ACT Reading sections is that the ACT has four reading passages compared to the SAT’s five, and its passages tend to be a bit longer. Finally, the ACT has 40 questions in this section, whereas the SAT has 52.

ACT vs SAT: Writing Sections

The ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections both test your overall reading and writing skills by presenting passages with mechanical or stylistic errors and asking you to improve them. For instance, a sentence with an improper adjective may require you to pick a better fit. The SAT Writing and Language includes charts and graphs in addition to full-length passages, but the ACT English section just has passages. Also, the SAT questions in this portion of the test vary more in difficulty. The ACT English section features 75 questions. The SAT Writing and Language section has just 44 questions.

The ACT Science Section

Perhaps the biggest difference between the SAT and ACT is that the ACT has a 35-minute, 45-question Science section, and the SAT does not. Although the ACT Science section tests scientific knowledge for some questions, the bulk of the section emphasizes reading tables, analyzing hypotheses and using scientific reasoning to solve problems. The section contains seven reading passages with four to seven question sets each, and the questions lean much more on verbal comprehension than mathematical ability. Despite its lack of a Science section, the SAT features questions with a similar scientific flavor scattered throughout its three sections.

Optional Essays

Both the ACT and SAT feature an optional essay section. Many college admissions departments no longer require this section, due to the subjective nature of judging prose, but you may wish to take it anyway to be on the safe side. While the other section scores are merged into a composite score for both tests, the ACT and SAT essay sections have separate test scores to reflect their optional nature.

The essay content for both tests differs somewhat. For the SAT, test-takers are expected to read an author’s 650- to 700-word opinion and analyze it in an essay using rigorous logic and evidence, taking care to explain how the author developed the opinion. For the ACT, test-takers are given three conflicting opinions on a subject, and they have to provide their own stance on the issue while evaluating the three opinions using evidence. If you have excellent reading comprehension skills, you might find the SAT’s optional essay more appealing. If you like to demonstrate your views and marshal rhetoric to support them, the ACT’s essay might be more to your liking.

SAT vs ACT: Test Prep

To achieve the highest ACT or SAT scores possible, particularly for admission to an Ivy League or similarly prestigious university, many people invest in test prep services. These include test prep classes and private tutors, both of which can boost SAT and ACT scores by dozens of points. Many ambitious students also take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, and the PreACT, practice tests designed to simulate the test day. Just as the SAT and ACT both offer fee waivers to students who can demonstrate financial need, the PSAT and PreACT have fee waiver programs, ensuring fair access to SAT and ACT prep resources. The main difference between the PSAT and PreACT is cost: As of 2019, the PSAT costs $16 for U.S. students without waivers, while the PreACT costs $12 for that group. For additional preparation, ACT and SAT practice books and study guides are available, each featuring hundreds of questions drawn from earlier tests, with tips on how to answer them.

ACT vs SAT: Scoring Differences

The SAT and ACT both feature composite scores normed to fit a statistical bell curve, so that a very small number of test-takers achieve perfect scores and the vast majority receive middling scores. This arrangement helps college admissions counselors rank the academic promise of applicants in fine detail. However, the score ranges of the tests differ. The ACT has a score range of 1 to 36, with 36 being a perfect score. Each section of the test has this score range, and the final ACT score is an average of each section score, rounded up or down. The SAT, meanwhile, has a range of 400 to 1600. The raw scores from both the Reading section and Writing and Language section are combined into a composite score of 200 to 800, and the raw score from the Math Section is converted to a score of 200 to 800. The two scores are then added together to produce a final score.

Math skills are much more important on the SAT than the ACT, since math questions make up half of the final SAT score but only a quarter of the final ACT score. The average composite ACT score is 21, with section averages of 20.3, 20.7, 21.4 and 21.0 for English, Math, Reading and Science, respectively. Moreover, just 1 percent of test-takers score higher than 33 on the ACT. For the SAT, the average composite score is roughly 1068, with the Math and Reading and Writing and Language sections averaging about 531 and 536 points, respectively. Just 1 percent of SAT test-takers get a combined score above 1490.

Other Differences Between ACT and SAT

There are other differences between the SAT and ACT you should consider before signing up for either test. For example, as of 2019, the ACT costs $39.50 without the optional essay and $56.50 with it, while the SAT costs $43 without the essay and $54.50 with it. Moreover, late registrations for the ACT and SAT cost $25 and $28, respectively, and standby testing costs $49 for the ACT and $46 for the SAT. International testing varies from $35 to $49 for the SAT, depending on the location, but is consistently $40 for the ACT.

To avoid overlapping too much, the SAT and ACT alternate the months in which they offer testing, save for June, October and December. In all three of those months, both tests are offered. The SAT has tests available seven times per year, whereas the ACT is only available six times each year. Test dates may vary slightly from year to year, so you should track them carefully to avoid being unprepared for college application deadlines. In addition, different states require students to take different tests. Maine, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, Columbia, D.C., New Hampshire and Delaware all require high school students to take the SAT. Meanwhile, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Montana, Missouri, Mississippi, Hawaii, Alabama, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Louisiana and Kentucky all require students to take the ACT.

Which Test Should You Take?

Notwithstanding geographical restrictions, most students’ choice of test is a matter of taste, as most colleges accept either one and weigh them equally. Since the SAT relies heavily on math concepts, you may find it more profitable to take than the ACT if you’re math-oriented, and vice versa if reading and writing is your strong suit. Additionally, the more relaxed time constraints on the SAT make that test ideal for people who struggle to perform under pressure, and the SAT’s provision of math formulas puts less emphasis on memorization. On the other hand, the ACT has a wider range of math concepts, allows for opinionated essay writing and draws upon scientific reasoning. To find out which test is right for you, it might be a good idea to take both the PSAT and PreACT and compare your scores. Since colleges don’t need to see your performance on these practice tests, you don’t need to worry too much if you don’t do as well as expected.

The standardized test is a major milestone in college-bound students’ lives, so it pays to think hard about the differences between the two main options: the SAT and ACT. Even though they’re more alike than not, each test plays to a slightly different style of thinking. To impress college admissions counselors, you want to pick the test that’s right for you.

Still not sure? Take this quick quiz to find out what you should take: