The ACT vs. SAT: Which to Take and How to Ace Both

A comparison of the ACT and SAT including the different sections, time allocations, and difficulty levels, and more.

Posted January 10, 2024

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Table of Contents

Overview of the ACT

The ACT is a standardized test that is used by most colleges and universities as an aid in admissions decisions. It is a multiple-choice test administered by ACT, Inc. The test measures a high school student’s readiness for college in four core areas: English, Reading, Math, and Science. This standardized test is one part of a student's college application, in addition to GPA, class list, letters of recommendation, interviews, and essays.

Most high school students will take either the ACT or SAT during their junior year in order to reserve time for studying, test retakes, and the rest of the college application. It’s possible to take the ACT up to twelve times, although most students will only take it two or three times. The ACT is offered every year in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July.

The test is two hours and fifty-five minutes long. In addition to the four main sections, there is also an optional forty-minute writing test. Some colleges require this part while others do not. Each section is scored from 1 to 36 and the composite score is the average of each section’s score. The test administrators take students’ raw scores, convert them to scale scores, and then average scale scores in order to accurately create a composite score. The national ACT average score is 20, although the ideal ACT for students will vary dramatically based on their target universities.

To register to take the test, visit ACT.

Overview of the SAT

Like the ACT, the SAT is also a globally-recognized college admissions test. The SAT has two main sections: reading/writing and math, with an optional essay section. Most questions are organized in a multiple-choice format, although some math questions may ask for a longer response.

Students can take the SAT as many times as they want, but most students will take it only two or three times. The test is offered on seven dates throughout the year in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June.

The test is three hours long and each section is scored on a 200 to 800 scale. The total SAT score is simply the sum of each section, with the highest possible score of 1600 points. The national average score is 1051, though, like the ACT, the ideal score will depend on students’ college aspirations.

To register for the SAT, visit their website here.

Read: SAT Game Plan: How to Master Every Concept

ACT vs. SAT: What Is The Difference?

At first glance, the two tests may not seem that different. Both are nationally recognized standardized tests and common admission requirements for American universities. The tests are designed for high school juniors and seniors, and both measure students’ proficiency in various critical skill areas, including problem-solving, reading comprehension, and mathematics.

All higher education institutions accept both the ACT and SAT, so students can apply to the same schools regardless of which test they decide to take. As the content of each differs slightly, there are several things that are important to consider before you begin to study and take either test. The SAT is slightly longer than the ACT, meaning that more endurance is required but students will also get a longer period of time to answer each question. Both reading sections are passage-based and both offer an optional essay portion.

Here are some points to consider when deciding which test to take:

1. Popularity in Your State

Depending on the state, some school districts place more emphasis and attention on one test than the other. The SAT is more popular in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest regions, as well as highly-populated areas like California, Texas, Illinois, and Florida. The ACT is more popular in the Midwest and Southern regions, like in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. Both the ACT and SAT, however, are available in all fifty states.

2. Score Range Differences

The SAT and the ACT follow different scoring scales. The SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 points, while the ACT composite scores range from 1 to 36 points. Each section of the SAT ranges from 200 to 800 points and the total score is the sum of these sections. The overall score of the ACT is the average of each section and is graded on the same scale of 1 to 36 points.

3. Different Sections

While both tests are similar, there are some differences in the order of sections, content, and question styles.

The ACT sections include:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Writing (optional essay)

Read ACT Game Plan: How to Master Every Section and Concept

The SAT sections include:

  • Evidence-Based Reading
  • Writing & Language
  • Math (no calculator)
  • Math (with a calculator)

Read SAT Game Plan: How to Master Every Concept

The reading section on the ACT is equivalent to the evidence-based reading on the SAT. They test a student’s reading comprehension skills by having students read passages and find answers in the content.

The Writing & Language section on the SAT is very similar to the English section on the ACT. On both tests, the goal is to test a student’s knowledge of English conventions, grammar, word choice, vocabulary, etc.

The math section on the ACT is similar to the math section on the SAT but there are a few significant differences. While math-related questions account for 50% of the total SAT score, they only account for 25% of the ACT’s composite score. Also, while the SAT includes sections in which calculators can and cannot be used, the ACT allows a calculator for the entire math section.

The science section is arguably the most distinct difference between the two tests. The SAT does not include a section dedicated to scientific concepts, although it does test them in the other sections.

Part of any student’s choice should include a discussion of section strengths and weaknesses. Students who excel in math may prefer the SAT because more of the score will be determined by mathematical questions. Students who prefer more holistic testing, and who like science, may prefer the ACT because each section is weighted the same and there are questions solely dedicated to scientific concepts.

4. Time Allocation

Students should also consider the time limit of both tests. The SAT, because it is longer, allows more time per question but in return, requires a longer period of concentration. The table below shows the time allocation per question in each section of the ACT and SAT. The SAT offers more time per question than the ACT for every section.

Reading - ACT (53 sec/question); SAT (75 sec/question)

ACT English/SAT Writing - ACT (36 sec/question); SAT (48 sec/question)

Math - ACT (60 sec/question); SAT (75 sec/question on no calculator, 87 for calculator section)

Science - ACT (53 sec/question); SAT (no science section)

5. Math Section

While both the SAT and ACT evaluate students’ understanding of core math concepts, they have a few subtle differences. The ACT has more geometry and calculation-based questions with less data analysis. The SAT math questions are more reasoning-based with fewer geometry questions but more data analysis questions. In general, the ACT expects students to understand slightly more advanced math concepts but the portion of the test that is dedicated to math is smaller than the ACT. And, students can use a calculator for the entirety of the ACT math section, while for the SAT there is a calculator-allowed and a non-calculator math section.

6. Level of Difficulty: Which is Harder?

Because both tests are so similar and dependent on students’ strengths, neither one is empirically easier. Students should evaluate their preferred sections and take practice exams in each to determine which test to take. Also, it is becoming increasingly common for students to take both tests, after which they can simply choose to submit the score of whichever test they did better on.

The questions on the SAT are known to include slightly trickier language than the ACT, whose questions are more straightforward. However, the increased time limit per question on the SAT can offset the disadvantage. Also, if a student gets a 35 on two sections of the ACT, the composite score will be a 36 because of the average rounding. On the other hand, students will need to get a perfect score on both sections to score an overall perfect score. Because of this, perfect composite scores on the ACT are more common, but this isn’t necessarily linked to the tests’ difficulty levels, but rather their scoring methods.

Which Test Should I Take: the SAT or ACT?

As this article has shown, the SAT and ACT tests have more similarities than differences. Both evaluate a student’s level of college preparedness, cover the same general areas, and are accepted by all universities. Schools do not prefer one test over the other so the one you choose to take will depend on your needs and strengths.

To help you decide which test to take, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Which test dates work best for my schedule? 2. What testing centers are near me? 3. Which test best reflects my testing style? 4. Can I read passages quickly? 5. Can I solve math problems quickly? 6. Is science a subject I am good at? 7. Have I taken advanced math subjects like trigonometry or pre-calculus? 8. Do I feel comfortable completing math problems without a calculator? 9. What scores did I get on practice ACT and SAT tests? 10. What are the average SAT/ACT scores of my target university?

These questions should give you some guidance as to which test to take and a direction to start. At the end of the day, you know your test-taking habits, strengths, and preferences and will be the best person to determine the right test. Take advantage of online practice tests, prep classes offered at your high school, and the advice of mentors when making your decision.

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