teen girl with glasses is stressed out while studying for the sat

SAT vs Act: Which Test Is Right for Me?

During the admissions process, American colleges and universities use SAT and ACT test scores to measure student readiness for college. These scores provide colleges and universities with a common reference point by which to compare all students. In theory, the higher the test score, the more prepared the student will be for college. But even though they supposedly measure the same thing, there are a number of differences between the two exams. So, we’re giving you the SAT vs ACT comparison to help you decide which test to take.

Get answers to all the important questions:

  • How is each exam scored?
  • Which test is longer?
  • Do both standardized tests require the same skills and subject knowledge?
  • Can I bring a calculator?
  • How can I get a feel for which exam to take?

Related: COVID-19 has changed the way a lot of students and schools view the SAT. Find out why it’s still worth it to take the SAT in 2021.

SAT vs Act Comparison: The Logistics

Let’s be honest: as a high schooler, you definitely want the solid facts – what your scores mean (because scores are really different, not out of 100 like regular high school tests), how long you have to sit in a single classroom, whether you have to write an essay, and how hard you need to work to do well on these exams.

Scoring Systems: What does it take to get into the college of your choice?

Unlike most exams you take in school, these tests are not pass or fail. There is a minimum score and a maximum (although, contrary to popular belief, you do not get points on these exams just for signing your name.)

Each college has typical minimum acceptable SAT and ACT score ranges. If the rest of your college application is amazing, you don’t absolutely need to be in a certain score range. But to ensure your application is strong, invest time in the testing process.

The grading scales for both exams are relatively unique. The highest possible score on the SAT is 1600, while the ACT is on a 36 point scale. Both tests take a composite, or average, score of all test sections to come up with your total score.

The SAT is divided into two portions: Math and Verbal. 800 is the highest possible score on each portion. The two section scores are added up and that’s your score. Pretty simple, right?

In contrast, your ACT composite score is calculated as an average of four subject area scores: Reading, English, Math, and Science. Composite scores are rounded to the nearest whole number.

For an example of how the ACT scoring system works, let’s say you get the following scores in each subject area:

  • Reading: 21
  • English: 24
  • Math: 26
  • Science: 28

Your composite score is the following: (21 + 24 + 26 + 28) /4 = 24.75

But ACT scores are whole numbers, so your final ACT score would be 25 out of 36.

The national average score for the SAT vs ACT is 1059 and 20.8.

Do colleges prefer one type of exam over another?

All colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. They are both rigorous exams that test your aptitude in core subject matter. For the most part, they show how ready you are for college level courses.

You can take both and send in both scores, for the most part. But if you do significantly well on one exam over the other, consider sending only the highest score. 

Test Length: How long will you sit in a classroom and test?

If you know anyone who has taken these exams, they’ve probably told you that these exams feel like they take forever!

But in reality:

  • officially, the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long, but you also get a 10 minute break in the middle of it
  • there is an optional writing section of the ACT which takes 40 minutes, so if you decide to take it, your total time to test is just under 4 hours (more on this below)
  • the SAT is around 3 hours long, with one 10-minute and one 5-minute break built into testing time
  • the optional SAT essay section was removed from circulation in June 2021, so no need to worry about an essay here

You are only allowed to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom during breaks, and you cannot use your cell phone during any part of either exams. If you power on your device, your scores will be cancelled.

You also cannot skip to another section if you finish the current section early. And you can’t go back to any other section, either.

Pro tip: Use all of your allotted time to double check your answers on the current section. Don’t close your testing booklet unless and until you’re completely sure about all your answers. (You probably won’t have time to complete each section, check answers, and put your head down.)

Will I be able to use a calculator?

Calculators are allowed on all Math portions of the ACT.

However, the SAT has a mental math portion where calculator usage is forbidden. 

Read up on the SAT calculator policy and the ACT calculator policy well before exam day so you know exactly what type of calculator you can bring. (You can’t share a calculator, nor are testing centers required to offer you one.)

Test Format: Multiple Choice, Written Answers, and Guessing Policy

SAT vs ACT differences in math questions. Image: Grid-in question format for SAT math section.
This is a key difference between the SAT and ACT math portions. (image courtesy of College Board.)

The ACT is 100% multiple choice.

However, the SAT is not set up that way. The majority of the exam is multiple-choice, but the math portion includes “grid-in” questions. These are questions that require you to calculate answers on your own and then fill in your answer as a number on your bubble sheet.

Also, you are not penalized for guessing on either exam. So, put down an answer for every question – pick a letter that you use for all your guesses on exam day, that way you won’t even have to consider which one to put down when you don’t know. 

You have a 25% chance of getting the right answer on the SAT. On the ACT Math, however, you only have a 20% chance of getting the right answer.

SAT vs ACT: Similarities and Differences in Exam Content

The SAT has three sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. There are two separate parts of the Math section, though: one with a calculator and one without. 

The major difference, hands-down, is the amount of time allotted to each question on the two exams.

The ACT, in general, has more questions than the SAT, so you have less time per question. You need to be able to think fast. However, on the SAT you often have more lengthy reading passages for each question, so you have to be able to read quickly and focus more.

Reading Section

The SAT reading section is 65 minutes long and includes 52 questions. It includes five reading passages:

  • 1 U.S. or World Literature
  • 2 History or Social Studies
  • 2 Science

At least one of the passages will have some type of chart, graph, or visual you need to interpret. You may also find paired passages, where the same topic is discussed from different points of view.

The ACT reading section asks 40 questions in 35 minutes. The five reading passages always come from four subject areas:

  1. Social Studies
  2. Natural Sciences
  3. Literary Narrative/Prose Fiction
  4. Humanities

Both the SAT and ACT focus on main ideas and key details, vocabulary in context, and author’s purpose/technique. They also include compare and contrast questions.

Related: These reading test tips are useful for both the SAT and ACT.

Math Section: There are major differences on the ACT vs the SAT.

The SAT Math section has a 25-minute no-calculator portion containing 20 questions, and a 55-minute calculator portion containing 38 questions. You are given a formula sheet to reference throughout the test.

The ACT Math test contains 60 questions, which you have 60 minutes to solve. You are not given a formula sheet.

The SAT Math section focuses more on Algebra and mental reasoning, while the ACT includes more Geometry and Trigonometry questions.

Related: These ACT Math tips can also apply to some SAT questions, so read up on them no matter which exam you decide to take.

Writing and Language (SAT) and English (ACT)

You have 65 minutes to answer 44 questions on the SAT Writing and Language section. You will be asked about grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and author’s style. There are both single sentence and paragraph-long grammar questions.

The ACT English section allows you 45 minutes to answer 75 questions. You see the same kind of concepts tested on the ACT as the SAT. However, all ACT reading passages are longer, with more questions dedicated to each passage. There are also a lot of “improving the paragraph” questions on the ACT, while the SAT only includes a few.

The ACT Science Section

It may seem strange that the ACT has a Science section but the SAT does not.

However, the SAT has incorporated science-based questions within the reading section of the exam.

The ACT’s Science section is a little more comprehensive than the SAT’s science questions, but both of them incorporate experimental setups. They both require you to analyze data and draw conclusions.

Related: These are ACT Science tips for students who dread lab days.

The Optional ACT Essay

Not all colleges require or even consider the ACT Essay section – however, some colleges do, so you should either:

  1. know exactly which schools you are applying to and whether or not they require the ACT Essay section
  2. take the ACT Essay portion, just in case

If you decide to do the writing portion of the ACT, you have 40 minutes to complete one essay written on lined paper using only pencil. Remember pens or mechanical pencils allowed.

You are presented with one writing prompt describing a complex, real-world issue and three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to:

  • read the prompt and the different perspectives
  • develop your own perspective on the issue
  • present a strong thesis statement that succinctly describes your perspective
  • analyze the relationship between your own perspective and one or two other perspectives
  • include advanced use of language
  • structure your essay with your ideas as a guide, without relying on the generic five-paragraph-essay structure
  • use proper spelling, grammar, and craft in your writing

This is a lot to do in 40 minutes, but the skills you acquire when studying for the Reading and English sections of the ACT teach you most of the skills you need for coming up with ideas and proper use of language.

To get your ideas on paper, do some preplanning before you put anything down on your lined answer sheet. Come up with a general structure, then write, and make sure you get out all your ideas by referring back to your outline.

Related: See these ACT example essays and grading breakdown to understand what it takes to write a great essay.

SAT vs ACT: How to Choose Which One to Take

So, you’re armed with a lot of information about the SAT vs ACT. How do you actually make your decision?

It’s simple. First, take some full-length SAT and ACT exams. If you feel more comfortable with or score much better on one over the other, choose the better one for you.

However, if you score about the same on both, consider the following when making your choice:

  1. Are you good at answering questions quickly?
  2. Are you better at comprehension than math?
  3. Is mental math one of your weak points?
  4. Is science (i.e. experimental setup, data analysis, reading graphs) something you’re good at?
  5. Are you good at writing essays?
  6. Does your school require the ACT essay?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, go with the ACT. 

But if you’re generally better with math, half of your SAT score is essentially math, so consider going with the SAT. If you’re much better with Algebra than Geometry and Trigonometry, strongly consider the SAT over the ACT.

No matter which test you choose, you need to study often and study efficiently.

SAT

ACT

Scale

Maximum of 1600 points

Maximum of 36 points

Average Score

1059

20.8

Test Length

Total 3 hours

2 hours and 55 minutes
(plus an optional 40 minute essay portion)
Total 3 hours 35 minutes

Calculator Usage

No calculator for one portion (20 mental Math questions in 25 minutes)

you can use a calculator on all portions of the Math exam

Format of Test

80% multiple choice 20% grid in responses

All multiple choice

Reading

Reading level is up to early college

Reading level is mostly 10-11th grade

Math

Basic Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Data Analysis

Basic Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Data Analysis, Statistics

Essay

There is no longer an optional essay 

Evaluate and analyze complex issues

Science

No specific section, included sparingly 

Specific science section that tests critical thinking skills

Number of Questions

154 questions

215 questions

Reading Passages

5 passages of 500 – 750 words

4 passages of 700 – 900 words

Test Layout

  • Reading: 65 mins

  • Language: 35 mins

  • Math: 55 mins (calculator)

  • Math: 25 mins (no calc)

  • English: 45 mins

  • Math: 60 mins

  • Reading: 35 mins

  • Essay: 40 mins (optional)

  • Science: 35 mins

Sign up for private or group SAT or ACT prep sessions, with one of our highly-trained tutors.

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