Updated August 4, 2020
The ACT and SAT are two similar college entrance exams that help admissions officers decide which students are up to their college’s standards. Although the tests are pretty similar, their differences in areas like structure, content, pricing, and regional popularity can determine which test will allow you to optimize your college application and get into the school of your dreams.
If you’re trying to decide between taking the ACT or SAT, it means you’re probably a high school student. It also means that you’re about to make what feels like some really stressful decisions about intense, potentially life-changing tests—but don’t worry! Though the ACT and SAT are daunting tasks, they’re actually simpler than you think. Understanding how these tests work, and which one works best for you, is simply a matter of looking into factors such as their formats, scoring, popularity, and more. This article breaks down all the major differences between the SAT and ACT to make your choice easier for you. Once you understand how these tests differ, you can choose which one will suit you best, start studying, and crush your college entrance exam.
How has COVID-19 affected the SAT and ACT?
Testing in the world of COVID-19 is no easy task—the companies that administer both the SAT and ACT have had to make plenty of adjustments to their testing procedures and dates to keep students safe, and some colleges are also adapting their admissions policies to make sure students can get in even if their testing plans were interrupted. To see everything you need to know about how the coronavirus has changed ACT and SAT testing in 2020-2021, check out our ACT scoring and SAT scoring articles.
Should I Take the SAT or ACT?
When applying for college applications, is the SAT or ACT better?
The simple answer is that today’s colleges don’t usually weigh the SAT or ACT that much differently, as both scores can be used to determine admission and eligibility for merit-based scholarships.
This rule isn’t set in stone, so be sure to research if your chosen school does have a preference between the tests, but also keep in mind that the tests are more similar than they are different when it comes to the college application process in the US. That means that the decision to take one over the other depends more on your academic strengths, as well as your level of access to each test. To help you figure out which test fits your academic strengths and test-taking style, we break down differences in their format, scoring, length, and regional popularity below.
What Are the Differences Between the SAT and ACT?
There are a few big things that set the SAT and ACT apart, particularly in the ways they approach their content:
The ACT is more content-focused and uses straightforward but detailed questions to test what you’ve learned in school. The SAT has somewhat more nuanced questions that test your evaluation, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.
One great example of these separate approaches is the ACT’s Science section, which the SAT has no equivalent for. Based on these differences alone, you may have found that you might prefer one test over the other. There are more differences to mention, though, which relate to their scoring systems and test-day experience—so there’s still more to see about the SAT vs. ACT that may change your mind.
It’s clear that the tests are different, but they have their similarities as well. Neither test penalizes test-takers for incorrect answers, as the SAT removed its penalty for guessing in March 2016. Points are solely given for correctly answered questions.
Below, you’ll be able to look through their differences to determine which is best for you, but don’t forget that ultimately both the SAT and ACT are content-based tests that cover a range of fundamental academic topics.
SAT vs. ACT Format
The SAT is divided into two main sections plus an optional essay. The two main sections of the SAT are the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section (ERW) and the Math section.
Both of these sections are broken up into two subsections each, and your SAT score report will show several question/concept profiles within the ERW and Math sections.
The Math section of the SAT is broken up into with-calculator and without-calculator portions, and many argue that it’s overall more challenging than the ACT’s math section. However, one thing that may make the SAT’s math easier for you is their inclusion of formulas; for a selection of your SAT math problems, all the formulas you’ll need are provided on the test itself. One thing making the SAT’s math more difficult, though, is that 20% of its questions require you to fill in the blank, rather than select from multiple choices. These fill-in-the-blank questions test your understanding more rigorously than standard multiple choice problems, as test-taking strategies such as the process of elimination won’t apply.
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing:
This section is broken up into two parts: the Reading subsection and the Writing and Language subsection. Both of these test your understanding and evaluation of passages which require 9th grade to college-level reading comprehension.
The SAT’s Reading subsection is comparable to the ACT’s Reading section, but the SAT’s version allows more time per question, with 52 reading questions to be completed in 65 minutes: 75 seconds per question. The ACT, on the other hand, allows 23 fewer seconds per reading question. Though that may not seem like much, this could be the difference between finishing your reading section completely and leaving some questions unanswered.
The essay section of the SAT is completely optional, and is scored separately from your overall score. Your essay question presents you with a text and asks you to evaluate it and respond to it in a way that demonstrates your comprehension and critical thinking abilities.
Although many SAT prep experts will advise you to take it rather than not, you shouldn’t worry about the SAT essay if you feel it will only bring your score down and you don’t have time to prepare. Otherwise, take the SAT essay to make sure you’re showing off your writing chops!
The ACT consists of four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science.
The ACT Math section tests your abilities with pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. You can use a calculator on all ACT math questions, which makes the ACT an appealing option for many students. On top of that, all of the ACT’s math questions are multiple choice, so you have a 20% chance of getting an answer right when guessing and can use the process of elimination to increase those odds with each question.
The comprehension level for the ACT’s reading passages range from only 10th to 11th grade, so the content may be slightly easier to understand than the SAT’s, but you also have less time to answer each question. With the ACT Reading section, you’re expected to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes, allowing approximately 52 seconds per question.
The Science section is unique to the ACT; the SAT has no equivalent for it. For the ACT Science section, you’ll evaluate passages that test your ability to interpret data and problem solve. You don’t have to remember every scientific principle you’ve learned—this section instead measures your abilities with the scientific process of asking questions and finding solutions through acquired data. Texts and data in this section will increase in difficulty as you move forward through the test, and each question that you answer for those texts and datasets will also be harder than the last.
Like the SAT’s, the ACT’s essay section is completely optional. Rather than just asking you to evaluate and respond to a passage and topic, the ACT specifically asks you to create and defend an argument based on a prompt. Again, though it’s a great opportunity to show off your writing abilities and bolster your score, don’t take the essay portion if you don’t have time to prepare and are confident that it will negatively impact your overall performance.
SAT vs. ACT Scoring
Doing well on any standardized test isn’t just about being smart—sometimes it’s about knowing how different content is scored so you can maximize your ability in the areas that make the most impact. That means that understanding the SAT’s scoring system is critically important. Our detailed rundown of how the SAT is scored can give you more information if you need it, but here’s a brief overview:
Each of the SAT’s two key sections (the ERW and Math sections) are given a scaled score between 200 and 800, which add together to give you a potential score of 1600 points total.
This scaled 1600 score is converted from your raw score, which is the number of questions you answered correctly. Skipped questions or wrongly answered questions do not subtract from your raw score—if they did, you wouldn’t want to guess on questions you weren’t sure about.
The essay section is scored separately from your overall 400-1600 total score. Two essay graders score the section by awarding 1-4 points each in three distinct areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The two graders’ scores are combined to give you a 2-8 score per area.
The College Board, the company that administers the SAT, releases raw score to scaled score ranges for practice tests, so you can see how many correct versus incorrect questions it takes to get a specific score on the SAT. Check out our raw to scaled SAT score conversion table below:
|Raw Score||Scaled Math Score||Scaled Reading Score||Scaled Writing and Language Score|
Overall, the ACT is scored somewhat similarly to the SAT when it comes to counting correct or incorrect answers, though its scaling system is a bit different. Here you’ll see an overview of how the ACT is scored, but if you want to learn more about its system and current score averages, go to our ACT scoring article to see a more detailed explanation.
For every answer you get right on the ACT, you are given a point. Like the SAT, the ACT has no deduction for wrong answers, so you can guess on questions you’re not sure about without getting an additional penalty. The total number of questions marked correctly on each test is your raw score, which is then converted into a scaled score between 1-36—this is the total ACT score most people will refer to.
To calculate your composite (or total) ACT score yourself, add up the numbers of correct answers for each section (Science, Math, English, and Reading) and divide the sum by 4. Round up to the nearest whole number, and you’ve got your composite ACT score.
But how is the ACT essay section scored? If you write an essay, it gets personally reviewed by two evaluators who each give you a score between 1 and 6. The score appears as the total of the two scores, which will be between 2 and 12.
If you’re interested in seeing how many correct/incorrect questions result in a specific score, check our ACT raw score to scaled score conversion table:
|Math Raw Score||Science Raw Score||Reading Raw Score||English Raw Score||Total Scale Score|
SAT vs. ACT Length
In total, the SAT lasts 3 hours and 50 minutes with the writing (essay) section, not including 15 minutes of breaks between sections. If you take the SAT without the writing portion, you’ll spend exactly 3 hours taking the test, not including your 15 minutes of breaks.
The ACT lasts 3 hours and 35 minutes with the writing section, not including breaks between sections. Without the essay section, the ACT will last 2 hours and 55 minutes, not including breaks. Here’s a breakdown of the timing for both the SAT’s and ACT’s sections:
|SAT Length||ACT Length|
|English / Writing and Language||44 questions
|Writing (essay)||1 prompt
SAT vs. ACT by State
Even though both the SAT and ACT are offered in all states, roughly half of the states have a majority of students taking the SAT, and the other half have more students taking the ACT.
States on the east and west coasts, along with Texas and Indiana, have more students taking the SAT. Students in the central states tend to prefer the ACT instead. In the figure below, we’ve broken down which states have a majority of reported scores for each test.
Do note, however, that some of these states are close to 50/50 when it comes to college entrance exams, meaning the ‘majority’ is by a slim margin. Also remember that just because one is more popular in your state doesn’t mean that the colleges you’re applying to won’t accept either score.
SAT & ACT Dates 2020-2021
You may be leaning toward one test or another by this point, but a very important factor in deciding between the ACT and SAT is whether you have time for them in your schedule. Below, we’ve put together graphics showing you SAT and ACT dates for the 2020-2021 testing year. Note that some of these dates are subject to change, especially considering COVID-19, so you should keep an eye out on the College Board and ACT websites for updates throughout the year (again, to learn more about how ACT and SAT testing has changed due to the pandemic, check out our ACT scoring and SAT scoring articles).
For every ACT or SAT test date, you’ll register about a month in advance, but you can also register late for nearly two weeks after the original deadline (with an additional cost); see the specific dates below for details. If you’re eager to learn more about the registration process, check out our articles on ACT registration and SAT registration, which walk you through step-by-step.
SAT and ACT Comparison Overview
|Test Components||● Reading (5 reading passages)
● Writing and Literature
● Math (Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Data Analysis)
● Optional Essay
|● English (4 reading passages)
● Math (Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Probability & Statistics)
● Science (testing critical thinking, not specific science knowledge)
● Optional Essay
|Duration||● 3 hours without essay
● 3 hours, 50 minutes with essay
|● 2 hours, 55 minutes without essay
● 3 hours, 35 minutes with essay
|Rules for Calculators||1 Calculator section, 1 Without Calculator section||Calculators Allowed|
|Rules for Essays||Essay tests comprehension and response to a provided text||Essay determines how well you evaluate and analyze complex problems/arguments|
ACT to SAT Score Conversion Calculator
Once you’ve taken either the ACT or SAT, or at least a practice test, you might want to see how that score would translate to the other test’s scoring system. That way, you can see how your scores stack up to the various ACT or SAT standards you’ll find online. To help you out, we’ve created an ACT to SAT conversion calculator tool that will show you how your score compares. For reference, the average SAT score is a 1060 out of 1600, and the average ACT score is about 20 out of 36.
Input your ACT score below and get the estimated equivalent SAT scores from our ACT to SAT conversion calculator!
We can’t deny that the SAT and ACT exams are no small task, but with the right research, you can figure out which test will really help your scores shine. The ACT and SAT are similar in that they’re both college entrance exams used by institutions around the country, but they have plenty of differences in their format, scoring, structure, content approach, and even in their test date schedules, all of which might make one a better option for you.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what each test is, how they compare, where they differ, how to choose the one you want to take, and how to compare your scores.
Once you decide which test you’ll take, the next step will be figuring out how exactly you want to prepare. As we see it, SAT and ACT prep courses are the most surefire way to crush your college entrance exams; check out the links below to see all the best prep courses of the year, which can help you perfect your testing skills and get into the school of your dreams.
When can I take the ACT and SAT exams?
The SAT will be offered eight times in the testing year of 2020-2021: in August, September, October, November, December, March, May, and June. Other states offer the SAT as part of regular state testing requirements. In these cases, they are not administered on the national test dates.
At the time of writing, there are seven available dates for ACT registration: in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July.
In case you missed them, check out our graphics above detailing the test dates, registration deadlines, and late registration deadlines for both the SAT and ACT. Or, if you’d like to learn more about the details of the sign-up process, check out our in-depth ACT registration and SAT registration articles.
Can I take both the SAT and the ACT?
In certain schools or with certain programs, you may be told that it’s best to take both the SAT and ACT. While this does have its advantages, there are also reasons to focus on one test over the other. When trying to study and prepare for two tests, you may end up scoring average or below average on both of them, which is worse than doing especially well on one. The two exceptions are as follows:
- If you’re applying to particularly competitive schools, then you might want to take both. Some Ivy League schools like to see this, but most schools don’t weigh taking both any differently than taking one.
- If you started testing early and have already maximized your score on one test, consider taking the other.
Even though this is far from a requirement, many students see scoring well on both tests as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition. Although it seems like a way to sweeten your college portfolio, in reality there’s little evidence that colleges give dual-test applications additional weight.
It’s also worth noting that some universities, including prestigious universities like Stanford and Georgetown, require you to send all of your SAT and ACT scores as part of your college application. This means that if you take both tests thinking it’ll benefit you but do terribly on one of them, you’ll have to report both your good and bad scores. Other schools may only require scores from one test, or even for one attempt of one test. So, it’s important that you identify and research your top schools before taking both exams or taking a test over and over again. For students applying to prestigious schools or those who are great test-takers, this may be an appropriate tactic. For others, this approach could backfire. Be strategic on which test(s) you take and understand what information your target schools require you to send them.
Is the SAT or the ACT easier?
There is no right or wrong answer to this, and the answers you may get from other students will vary. However, the similarities in these tests’ structure, timing, content, and overall popularity among states make it apparent that neither is that much harder than the other. Both exams are designed to test students’ academic knowledge and ability through a standardized assessment that’s about 3-4 hours long. Though you may have an easier time with one test, it will largely be because of your personal aptitude for one test’s style of questions and content emphasis.
How much do the ACT and SAT cost?
As of July 2020, the cost for taking the SAT is $52, or $68 if you take it with the essay section. If you register late, you have to pay an additional $30 late fee. The cost for taking the ACT is $50 for the test without the writing (essay) section, or $68 with the essay included. Late registration for the ACT costs an additional $30.
What are the differences between the SAT and ACT?
|Best For||Testing Critical Thinking||Testing High School Content|
|Length (With/Without Essay)||3 hours 50 minutes / 3 hours||3 hours 35 minutes / 2 hours 55 minutes|
|Cost (With/Without Essay)||$68 / $52||$68 / $50|