Updated December 9, 2019
Should I take the SAT or ACT?
When applying for college applications, is the SAT or ACT better? The simple answer is that most colleges have no preference for either the SAT or ACT as both scores are used to determine admission and eligibility for merit-based scholarships. The decision to take one over the other may depend on your academic strengths and which test correlates to those best. We’ll dive into every difference between the SAT and ACT below, to help you make the best decision for yourself and set you up for success.
SAT vs ACT: Differences
What are the main differences between the ACT and SAT?
The biggest structural difference between the tests is:
- ACT includes a science component
- SAT has a math section for which you may not use a calculator
With this alone, you might find that you prefer one test over the other. Although the sections outside of the ones mentioned above are the same, the content and way they are structured differ significantly.
On the SAT, questions are primarily evidence-based and context-based to encourage students to focus on real world issues and problem solving.
On the ACT, questions are more straightforward, but generally tend to be longer.
Neither test penalizes test-takers for incorrect answers, as the SAT removed the guessing penalization in March 2016. Points are solely given for correctly answered questions.
Let’s dive further into the differences of each section.
ACT vs. SAT Writing
These two areas are essentially the same. On the ACT, all questions pertain to the text provided. On the SAT, some questions reference a table or graph related to the text, rather than the text directly. The reading level for both exams is around 9th grade and both sections are in chronological order, meaning they don’t get more difficult as you progress.
ACT vs. SAT Math
On both tests, the math portion becomes progressively more difficult as you work through the questions.
The math section for the SAT is overall more challenging than the ACT. One benefit of the SAT is that the formulas you need are provided with the test. One drawback is that you cannot use a calculator. Additionally, 20% of the SAT math section is comprised of questions in which you will need to fill in the blank. The fill in the blank options test your understanding more rigorously than standard multiple choice options, as test-taking strategies such as using the process of elimination are not applicable. This is a major difference to keep in mind.
The ACT has more questions about Trigonometry and Algebra II and they are pretty fundamental. You can use a calculator, which makes the ACT an appealing option for many students (learn more about the ACT’s Calculator Policy). Take note that the ACT consists of all multiple choice so you have a 20% chance of getting an answer right when guessing and, as mentioned above, can use the process of elimination to increase those odds on each question.
ACT vs. SAT Reading
The comprehension level for the ACT reading passages range from between 10th to 11th grade. In the SAT, the comprehension level spans from 9th grade to college. Stronger readers might do well showing off their skillset with the SAT. The ACT reading section requires more time management than the SAT, as you’re expected to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes, allowing you approximately 52 seconds per question. The SAT has 52 reading questions to complete in 65 minutes, which allows 75 seconds per question. Having 23 more seconds per question on the SAT may not seem pivotal, however it could be the difference between answering all of the questions or not.
For the ACT science section, passages will increase in difficulty as you move forward throughout the test, and similarly throughout each passage.
There is no science section on the SAT. So, if you love science, you may be thinking you should take the ACT to show off your knowledge. However, you should note that most of the science questions evaluate your ability to read graphs and tables, evaluate hypotheses, and interpret data rather than test scientific knowledge.
Below is an overview of the main differences between the ACT and SAT.
ACT vs. SAT Comparison Table
|Rules for Calculators||Calculators Not Allowed||Calculators Allowed|
|Rules for Essays||Essay tests comprehension of a provided text||Essay determines how well you evaluate and analyze complex problems|
|Scoring||Scoring uses scale from 400-1600||Scoring uses scale from 1-36|
If you are unsure about which test to take, you should consider the differences between the two in order to determine which test will better convey your strengths. Ultimately, both are content-based tests that cover a range of fundamental academic topics.
When Can I Take the ACT and SAT Exams?
The SAT is offered seven times each year, in March or April, May, June, August, October, November, and December. Other states offer the SAT as part of regular state testing requirements. In these cases, they are not administered on the national test dates.
The ACT is also offered seven times a year, however the specific months differ slightly from the SAT: February, April, June, July, September, October, and December.
For the SAT, the registration is typically 4 weeks prior to the test date, which gives you ample time to prepare even if you begin about the time you register. Similarly, the ACT registration deadline is about 5-6 weeks prior to the test date.
Can I Take Both the SAT and the ACT?
Many programs recommend that you take one or the other, not both. When trying to study and prepare for both tests, you may end up scoring average or below average on both tests, which is worse than doing especially well on one. The two exceptions are as follows:
- If you are really great at tests and you are applying to competitive schools, then you might want to take both. Some Ivy League schools like to see both because it’s indicative of your abilities across multiple areas, not just one. Most schools don’t weigh taking both any differently than taking one, however (more on this below).
- If you started testing early and have already maximized your score on one test, you may consider taking the other.
Students are increasingly studying for and taking both the SAT and the ACT. 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. They see it as a way to “sweeten their college portfolios“, despite little evidence of colleges giving dual-test applications additional weight.
It’s also worth noting that some universities, including prestigious universities like Stanford and Georgetown, require that you send all of your SAT and ACT scores as part of your college application. So it’s important that you research and identify your top schools before opting to take both exams or before applying the mindset that you can take the tests over and over again without consequence. For many schools this may be an appropriate tactic but for others, this approach could backfire. Be strategic on which test(s) you take and understand what information your target schools require you send them.
SAT or ACT – Which is Easier?
There is no right or wrong answer to this, and the answers you may get from other students can vary. If you’ve started the studying process early and your target schools don’t require you to submit every score from both tests, it may be worth preparing for and taking both the SAT and ACT. If you really only have time to study for one, I’d recommend taking a full-length, timed, practice test for both exams to help you decide which one to take. From this, you might find out that you prefer one test’s structure and content more than the other.
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.
You can get a good idea of whether your state prefers the ACT or the SAT by location. The entire East Coast from top to bottom prefers the SAT, along with Texas, and the West Coast. All of the central states, with the exception of Indiana, prefer the ACT.
In the figure below, orange lines are indicative of ACT preferences while the green are SAT preferences:
ACT vs. SAT Sign Up Dates 2018-2019
Below is a list of upcoming SAT and ACT Dates:
|Test Type||Registration Date||Late Registration||Test Date||M/C Scores Available|
|SAT & Subject Tests||October 5, 2018||October 24, 2018||November 3, 2018||November 16-22, 2018|
|SAT & Subject Tests||November 2, 2018||November 20, 2018||December 1, 2018||December 14-20, 2018|
|ACT||November 2, 2018||November 19, 2018||December 8, 2018||December 18, 2018-January 1, 2019|
|ACT (not in NY)||January 11, 2019||January 18, 2019||February 9, 2019||February 19-March 5, 2019|
|SAT||February 8, 2019||February 27, 2019||March 9, 2019||March 22-28, 2019|
|ACT||March 8, 2019||March 25, 2019||April 13, 2019||April 23-May 7, 2019|
|SAT & Subject Tests||April 5, 2019||April 24, 2019||May 4, 2019||May 17-23, 2019|
|SAT & Subject Tests||May 3, 2019||May 22, 201||June 1, 2019||July 10, 2019|
|ACT||May 3, 2019||May 20, 2019||June 8, 2019||June 18-July 2, 2019|
|ACT (not in NY or CA)||June 14, 2019||June 24, 2019||July 13, 2019||July 23-August 2, 2019|
Once you have signed up, or are at the very least starting to take practice exams and prep courses, it is important to understand what types of results you will get, and what they mean.
For every answer you get right, you are given a point. They do not deduct points or wrong answers. The total number of questions marked correctly on each test comprises your raw score. The raw score is then converted into a scale score—which is the 1-36 scale most people know.
The composite score is your overall ACT score and it is the average of each test score. So, add up all the numbers for Science, Math, English, and Reading, then divide it by 4 and round up to the nearest whole number. That equals the composite score.
Let’s look at a sample conversion grid for the raw ACT scores. For this, remember to add the totals and then convert to a scale score. This is just an example:
|Math Raw Score||Science Raw Score||Reading Raw Score||English Raw Score||Total Scale Score|
|Between 59 and 60||40||40||75||36|
|57 or 58||39||39||73 or 74||35|
|55 or 56||38||38||71 or 72||34|
|50 or 51||35||35||67||30|
|47 or 48||33||33||64 or 65||28|
|45 or 46||Between 31 and 21||32||62 or 63||27|
|43 or 44||30||31||60 or 61||26|
|41 or 42||28 or 29||30||58 or 59||25|
|Between 38 and 40||26 or 27||29||56 or 57||24|
|36 or 37||24 or 25||27 or 28||Between 53 and 55||23|
|34 or 35||23||26||51 or 52||22|
|33||21 or 22||25||Between 48 and 50||21|
|31 or 32||19 or 20||23 or 24||Between 45 and 47||20|
|29 or 30||17 or 18||22||Between 42 and 44||19|
|27 or 28||16||20 or 21||40 or 41||18|
|Between 24 and 26||14 or 15||19||38 or 39||17|
|Between 19 and 23||13||18||Between 35 and 37||16|
|Between 15 and 18||12||16 or 17||33 or 34||15|
|Between 12 and 14||11||14 or 15||Between 30 and 32||14|
|10 or 11||10||13||29||13|
|8 or 9||9||11 or 12||27 or 28||12|
|6 or 7||8||9 or 10||25 or 26||11|
But what about the essay section? If you wrote an essay it gets reviewed by 2 evaluators. They 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.
SAT has two key sections each of which is given a scaled score between 200 and 800, which comprises the 1600 total you can achieve. The two sections are 1) Math and 2) Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.
This scaled score is converted from your raw score. The raw score is the number of questions you answered correctly. Skipped questions or wrongly answered questions do not subtract from your raw score. The formula used on each test is different. The College Board releases raw score to scaled score ranges for practice tests though, so you can get a rough idea of where you would score on the new SAT test.
|Math Score||Reading Test Score||Writing and Language Score||Total Scale Score|
ACT vs. SAT Conversion Calculator
Once you have taken either the ACT or SAT, or at least a practice test, you might be confused by the result and how that score equates to the other test. If you took the ACT, you might want to know your SAT equivalent, or what an ACT to SAT conversion looks like. We’ve created an ACT to SAT conversion calculator tool in order to help you better understand how they compare to one another. For reference, the highest possible score on the SAT is a 1600, and the average score is 1060. The highest possible score on the ACT is 36, and the average score is 20.
Input your ACT score below and get the estimated equivalent SAT scores from our ACT to SAT Conversion calculator!
ACT vs. SAT Cost
The cost for taking the SAT is $46 or $60 if you take it with the Essay portion. If you register late, it costs an additional $29.The cost for taking the ACT is $46 or $62.50 if you take the Essay portion. Late registration for the ACT costs an additional $29.50. Because the pricing of the two exams is so similar, the cost should not be the primary reason for picking one test over the other.
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’re going to take, make sure you’re utilizing the best study resources to maximize your score.The comparisons of all the best ACT and SAT courses are linked below to help you get started. Good luck!