SAT vs. ACT: Which Test Should You Take?

The decision of whether to take the ACT or SAT is a crucial step for high school students preparing for college admissions. While the ACT and SAT may seem similar at first glance, there are key distinctions that set them apart. With so much at stake, it’s important to understand the differences between these two standardized tests and identify which test is the best fit for you.

In this article, we will compare ACT and SAT, explore the key differences between them, and help you decide which test you should take. 

1. Understanding the ACT and SAT

What is the ACT?

The ACT (American College Testing) is a test that consists of four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. It emphasizes high school curriculum content and reasoning skills, with an optional 40-minute essay section (which some colleges require). The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score.

Who should take the ACT?

  • Students comfortable with scientific data and interpretation
  • Those seeking a test aligned with high school coursework
  • Individuals who excel in time management (the ACT is faster-paced)

What is the SAT?

The SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) is another test used for college admissions. It consists of two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math. It features more vocabulary emphasis and analytical reasoning compared to the ACT. The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600, with 1600 being the highest possible score.

Who should take the SAT?

  • Students with strong vocabulary and reading comprehension skills
  • Those comfortable with analyzing complex texts and arguments
  • Individuals who prefer a slower-paced, less science-oriented test

2. Key Differences between the ACT and SAT

Here are the most important differences for you to consider before deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT:


As of December 2023, the SAT costs $60, whereas the ACT costs slightly more at $68 (no writing section). The ACT with the optional essay costs $93.

Both exams provide fee waivers for eligible students. The SAT fee waiver gives you the opportunity to take two SAT tests without any cost and avoid late fees. Additionally, you will be able to send unlimited score reports to colleges, access answer services twice, have application fees waived at participating schools, and receive a free CSS Profile.

An ACT fee waiver offers similar advantages, such as the opportunity to take four ACT tests for free, sending unlimited score reports, having application fees waived at select schools, and gaining free access to an official ACT online preparation course.

Test Structure

The ACT consists of four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional Writing section. On the other hand, the SAT includes two sections: Evidence-based Reading and Writing, and Math. The ACT includes a dedicated Science section, which the SAT does not.


The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with each section receiving a separate score. The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600, with separate scores for the Reading/Writing section and the Math section.

Test Content

The tests content is one of the key differences between the SAT and the ACT tests. Let’s examine the content of each section:

Science Section

The ACT includes a dedicated Science section, while the SAT does not. The ACT’s Science test assesses scientific reasoning and data interpretation, making it unique among standardized tests. If you excel in science, it could boost your overall score.

Math Section

The Math sections also differ in content and difficulty level. The ACT tests a broader range of math concepts, including geometry, trigonometry, and advanced algebra. The SAT places more emphasis on algebra, problem-solving, and data analysis.

Reading Section

The reading sections on both tests evaluate students’ comprehension and analysis of written passages. However, the SAT places a stronger emphasis on vocabulary, using challenging academic words.

Number of Answer Choices on Math Questions

The number of answer choices can also influence your decision. ACT Math questions have five answer choices each, while SAT Math questions offer four choices. This difference in answer choices gives you a slightly higher chance of guessing correctly on the SAT than the ACT.

Math Section: Calculator vs. No Calculator

One major difference between the SAT vs ACT is how they handle the Math section. The SAT splits its Math section into two subsections: one allows you to use a calculator, while the other does not. The no-calculator section consists of 20 questions that need to be solved by hand using scratch paper within 25 minutes.

On the other hand, the entire ACT Math section allows you to use a calculator, although it is not mandatory. If you prefer using a calculator for math problems, the ACT might be a better fit for you.

Math Formulas and Reference Guide

When it comes to formulas and references, the SAT and ACT have their own approaches. The ACT does not provide any formulas on test day, so you must memorize them in advance.

However, the SAT provides a reference guide at the beginning of both the calculator and no-calculator Math sections. This guide contains formulas, particularly for geometry problems, which make up less than 10% of SAT Math questions.

Having this reference guide can reduce the pressure of memorizing formulas for the SAT compared to the ACT.

Question Formats: Multiple Choice vs. Grid-ins

While the ACT Math questions are all multiple choice, the SAT includes about 13 student-produced response questions, also known as grid-ins. Grid-ins require you to come up with the answers yourself and write them down by bubbling in the correct numbers.

If you prefer solving math problems in a multiple-choice format, the ACT might be more suitable for you.

Breadth of Math Topics

Both the ACT and SAT test have similar math topics, with a significant focus on algebra. However, the ACT places a stronger emphasis on upper-level math concepts such as trigonometry, logarithms, and matrices than the SAT does. If you excel in these advanced math topics, the ACT could be the better choice for you.

Chronological Reading Questions

Reading questions on the SAT generally appear chronologically, following the order of ideas presented in the passage. However, the ACT reading questions often lack a clear chronological order and can apply to any part of the passage.

The ACT’s non-linear approach may challenge test-takers and make it slightly more difficult to answer questions quickly.

Historical vs. Contemporary Reading Passages

If you decide to take the SAT, be prepared to encounter some older reading passages from before or early 20th-century, including historical documents and excerpts from classic literature.

Understanding old-fashioned language and historical context can be challenging. On the other hand, ACT reading passages are typically contemporary, written within the past few decades. If you have difficulty comprehending archaic language, the ACT could be a better option for you.

Optional Essay

While the SAT no longer offers an optional essay component, the ACT still includes an optional Writing section. If the inclusion of an essay is important to you, taking the ACT is your only option.

Test Length

The SAT and ACT have different durations. The ACT (215 ACT questions) takes approximately 3 hours and 35 minutes (including the optional Writing section) and 2 hours 55 minutes excluding the optional essay, while the SAT (154 SAT questions) takes about 3 hours (The SAT allows for slightly more time per question than the ACT).

3. Comparing the SAT and ACT

How are the ACT & SAT scored?

The two tests use different scoring scales. The ACT provides a composite score ranging from 1 to 36, which is calculated by averaging the scores of the four required sections. Additionally, students receive individual scores for each section.

The SAT, on the other hand, provides two section scores: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math. Each section is scored on a scale from 200 to 800, resulting in a total score range of 400 to 1600.

Higher scores are considered better, but colleges typically look for scores within their average admitted student range. Research the average scores for your target colleges to gauge your competitiveness.

Which Test do Colleges Prefer?

When it comes to college admissions, it’s important to understand that different schools have different preferences. Most institutions accept both the SAT and ACT, while others may have a clear preference for one over the other.

Therefore, before making your decision, it is crucial to research and familiarize yourself with the admission requirements of your target colleges.

4. Factors to Help You Decide: SAT or ACT?

The decision between taking the SAT or the ACT depends on a few factors.

College Preferences

Research the admission requirements and policies of your target colleges. Some institutions may explicitly indicate a preference for one test over the other, making your choice clear-cut. By adhering to their guidelines, you demonstrate your attention to detail and respect for their preferences.

Scoring Percentiles

Compare your percentile rankings for each test. Each exam has its own scoring system, and percentile rankings help colleges compare your performance against other applicants.

If one of your scores places you in a higher percentile bracket, it showcases your relative strength in that particular exam and may enhance your application.

Test Format and Strengths

When comparing the ACT & SAT, consider the format and content of each test. The SAT primarily focuses on reasoning and critical thinking skills, while the ACT emphasizes knowledge-based questions in core subject areas.

Reflect on your own strengths as a test-taker and determine which test aligns better with your abilities. By playing to your strengths, you can maximize your potential for a higher score.

Test Preparation

When choosing which test to take, assess the effort and resources you have invested in test preparation. Reflect on the time dedicated to studying for each test, as well as the availability of preparation materials and resources.

If you have devoted significantly more time and effort to one test, it may be valuable to showcase the resulting strong score as an indicator of your diligent preparation and commitment to academic success.

5. Which Score Should you Send?

Send Your Best Score

If you took both the SAT and ACT and scored better on one than the other, it’s advisable to send your best score. Admissions officers recognize that students may excel in different areas, and they want to see the score that best represents your abilities.

Consider Sending Both Scores

If your SAT and ACT scores are similarly good and you don’t face any financial burden associated with sending multiple scores, it may be advantageous to consider submitting both. Doing so demonstrates your proficiency in both the highly logical SAT and the straightforward academic test, the ACT.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which test should students choose, SAT or ACT?

Deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT depends on various factors and individual preferences. Some students might prefer the SAT due to its emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while others may lean towards the ACT because it covers a wider range of subjects.

It is advisable for applicants to take practice tests for each exam to gauge their strengths and weaknesses. This can help them identify which test aligns better with their abilities and test-taking style. Ultimately, there is no definitive answer and the choice should be based on careful consideration and self-assessment.

How many times can students take the SAT or ACT?

Students can take the SAT or ACT multiple times. It is common for applicants to take these tests two to four times to improve their scores. Taking the test multiple times provides an opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the format and content, identify areas of improvement, and strive for their best possible scores.

It’s important to note that some colleges may consider the highest score achieved by the student, while others may consider a combination of the highest section scores across multiple test dates.

Do colleges prefer the SAT or ACT scores?

Colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, and there is no preference for one over the other. Regardless of which test a student decides to take, colleges evaluate applications holistically and consider various factors beyond standardized test scores. It is essential for students to research the admission requirements of their target colleges to determine if they have any specific preferences.

Some colleges may require or recommend specific tests, while others offer flexibility in terms of which test scores to submit. Ultimately, the focus should be on preparing well and demonstrating academic readiness through the chosen standardized test.

How can students prepare for the SAT and ACT?

Test preparation is crucial for achieving a good score on the SAT or ACT. Students can engage in various test prep activities, including taking full-length practice tests, reviewing content areas covered in the test, and utilizing official SAT or ACT practice materials.

Additionally, there are numerous test prep resources available, including books, online courses, and tutoring services, to help students prepare effectively for the exams.

What should students expect on test day?

On test day, students should arrive at the test center early and prepared. They should bring all the necessary materials, such as identification, admission ticket, calculator (if allowed), pencils, and snacks.

The test is typically conducted in a proctored environment and follows specific instructions and timing. Following the guidelines provided by the test center and maintaining a calm and focused mindset can contribute to a successful test day experience.

How do the reading tests on the ACT and SAT differ?

The reading test on both the SAT and ACT evaluates students’ comprehension skills, but the SAT includes more challenging vocabulary and may require a deeper analysis of passages.

Students who read extensively and can navigate complex language structures may find the SAT reading section more suitable, whereas the ACT may appeal to those who prefer a more straightforward approach.

What’s the difference between the math sections on the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and ACT math sections cover similar topics, but there are notable differences. The SAT has a no-calculator math section, unlike the ACT, which allows calculator use throughout.

Students who are comfortable solving math problems without a calculator may prefer the SAT, while those who rely on calculators may lean towards the ACT.

Should I take the writing portion of the ACT?

Whether to take the writing portion of the ACT depends on the requirements of the colleges you plan to apply to. While some colleges may require or recommend the writing portion, others do not. Therefore, it is crucial to check the admission requirements of your target schools.

Even if the writing portion is optional, it might still be beneficial to take it, as it can showcase your writing skills and provide a more comprehensive view of your abilities to admissions officers. Make sure to research the specific colleges you are considering and their policies regarding the writing section to make an informed decision.

How are the SAT vs ACT scored?

Although the SAT and ACT cover similar content, they are scored differently. The SAT has a total score range of 400-1600, combining the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and math sections. The ACT, in contrast, provides a composite score ranging from 1 to 36, averaging scores from the four multiple-choice sections.

Do the SAT and ACT differ in terms of timing?

Yes, the SAT provides more time per question on average compared to the ACT. This may benefit students who prefer a more relaxed pace. However, individuals who thrive in a quicker testing environment may find the ACT more suitable. Consider your time management skills and test-taking speed when making a decision.

Is there an ACT vs SAT comparison chart available?

Yes, there are several charts comparing the ACT and SAT available online. These charts provide a side-by-side comparison of various aspects, such as test structure, content, and scoring.

They can be helpful in understanding the key differences between the two tests and making an informed decision about which test is the best fit for you.

Check it out: SAT vs. ACT Testing Score Comparison Table

Can Taking the ACT help me earn a higher SAT test score?

While the ACT and SAT are different tests, preparing for the ACT can still be helpful in improving your overall test-taking abilities. The skills acquired through ACT preparation, such as time management, critical thinking, and problem-solving, can positively impact your performance on the SAT. So, even if you decide to take the SAT, the ACT will help you excel at your SAT test.

Can I retake the ACT or SAT if I’m not satisfied with my score?

Yes, both the SAT and ACT allow students to retake the test. It’s common for students to take the SAT or ACT more than once to achieve their desired scores. However, it’s essential to be mindful of the testing schedule, as the SAT is offered seven times a year, while the ACT is available six times.

SAT practice, including the use of official SAT practice materials, can significantly aid in improving your performance. Likewise, ACT offers resources to help you prepare for a retake, such as the official ACT practice tests.

Do all colleges require students to take the SAT or ACT?

While many colleges and universities still require students to take either tests, an increasing number of institutions have adopted test-optional policies. This means that students have the choice of whether or not to submit their test scores during the application process.

It is advised to research the specific requirements of the colleges you are interested in to determine if the SAT or ACT is necessary.

What score do I need to earn on the SAT or ACT?

There is no specific score that guarantees admission to all colleges and universities. Each institution has its own criteria for admissions, and they consider various factors beyond test scores, such as GPA, extracurricular activities, and essays.

It is crucial to research the admissions requirements of the colleges you are interested in to understand the target scores they typically expect.

Key Takeaways


  • The SAT and ACT are scored differently: the SAT from 400-1600, and the ACT from 1-36.
  • Take full-length practice tests for both the ACT & SAT well ahead of the test date.
  • The ACT allows you to use a calculator during the entire math test.
  • Consider your strengths and weaknesses in different subject areas to identify which test is right for you.
  • Research the test requirements of your target colleges before you decide which test to take.
  • Utilize available test preparation resources.
  • Develop effective test-taking strategies.

Conclusion: ACT vs SAT

There’s no definitive to the question “What test should I take?”, some students may prefer the ACT over the SAT, others would pick the SAT over the ACT. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all option!

Deciding whether to take the ACT or SAT requires careful consideration of various factors. Assess your strengths and weaknesses in areas such as math, science, reading comprehension, and essay writing. Consider taking practice tests for both exams to familiarize yourself with their formats and content. Ultimately, choosing the right test will depend on your individual preferences, test-taking skills, and the requirements of the universities you are applying to.

Remember, ACT and SAT scores are just one aspect of your college application. Admissions committees also consider factors such as GPA, extracurricular activities, and personal experiences. So, regardless of which test you choose, make sure to focus on overall academic performance and personal growth.

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