Differences Between ACT and SAT: Understanding the Tests, Comparing Scores, and How to Study for Each

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You’ve spent your whole life in school: taking tests, making projects, and slowly preparing for adulthood. But before you consider moving on to college and pursuing your undergraduate degree, there may be a big hurdle in your way: the standardized exam. While not all universities require standardized exams for entrance, there are many that do. Unfortunately, there are multiple exams at your disposal, and they each have different rules and outcomes depending on your expertise. How are you supposed to choose between the two?

Unfortunately, that’s not a simple answer. The two most common and nationally recognized tests are the ACT and the SAT, and both have their own unique challenges. Additionally, they both cost money, require a few hours to take (and a few weeks to study), and your results from either can potentially reward you with an offer for merit scholarships that can be applied to your college tuition.

Is one better than the other, or should you take both? What about their respective scoring systems is so unique, and how can they influence your college admission? Is one better for liberal arts colleges while the other is better for technical universities, or is that a myth?

Before you make the decision on which test to take, use this resource to better understand what you can expect from either the ACT or the SAT. Included within is some of the specifics about the tests, as well as frequently asked questions that test takers might ask themselves. If you’re preparing for college and considering your testing options, make sure you are able to make an educated decision about your future.

Student buried behind books

SAT vs ACT Comparison: Differences Between Each Test

Both the SAT and the ACT are standardized tests that help colleges and universities determine how prepared you are, as a student, to take college-level courses.

At first glance, the two tests don’t look very different. They take a similar amount of time to complete (between 3 hours and 35 minutes for the ACT, around 3 hours and 50 minutes for the SAT), and they cover all the same basic subjects: reading, writing, comprehension, problem solving, and mathematics. In the past, the two tests were more distinct from each other, but the SAT went through a massive revision and redesign in 2016, and now is very similar to the ACT’s format.

Additionally, all US colleges and universities accept both the ACT and the SAT, so there’s no direct advantage to taking one test over the other. However, despite all these similarities, there are also some surprising differences that might influence your choice. Here is a list of the distinct differences:

Time Per Section

The biggest difference is the amount of time allotted to each section of the test. The SAT allows more time per question for every section of the test, whereas the ACT requires you to move faster through the questions.  

Additionally, the ACT has more questions than the SAT, but the SAT questions often require more lengthy reading and problem solving (so they take a little longer to complete).

Range of Scores

The scoring is also vastly different between both tests: the ACT scores an average of each section on a scale of 1-36, while the SAT scores each section on a scale of 200-400, with a total score of anywhere from 400-1600 points.

The Science and Math Sections

The ACT features a unique section: the science section. While both tests have sections devoted to reading and writing (called simply “English” for the ACT), the SAT features two mathematic sections (one with a calculator and one without), while the ACT features one math and one science section.

The math sections for both the tests also stand out. Both tests focus heavily on algebra, but unlike the SAT, the ACT also has a larger section on geometry and trigonometry, and the ACT allows calculators for all aspects of the test (whereas the SAT has one math section that does not allow a calculator).

The SAT provides a little reference guide for some basic mathematical formulas and diagrams, while the ACT does not. This might be helpful for some students that have trouble memorizing formulas. However, the SAT math score accounts for about half of the total score of the test. The ACT, on the other hand, has a math score that only makes up about a quarter of the final test score. So, although the SAT might provide you a helpful reference guide, it may not be the best test to take if you struggle with math.

Command of Evidence Questions

Another major difference between the two tests can be found in the composition of the questions. The SAT includes a unique sub-section of the reading category that asks you evidence-support questions, and each question is in chronological order with the text it is referencing. The ACT however does not have a subsection with evidence-support questions, and the questions are listed randomly in correspondence with the paragraph they reference.

The Optional Essay or Writing Assignment

Lastly, the ACT and SAT also both offer an optional writing or essay assignment. However, each test asks for a different approach to the question given. For the SAT, a writing prompt will be given and you’ll be expected to dissect the issue without offering an opinion. It is an objective or fact-based assignment. The ACT however will offer a prompt that also asks for your personal opinion on the matter.

SAT Overview

The SAT — which originally stood for Scholastic Assessment Test and now is simply called the SAT — is a standardized test that evaluates a student’s critical skills and comprehension to determine how they might handle college-level courses. The test was originally created in 1926, and has gone through multiple revisions (the most recent was in 2016) to adjust to education levels, expectations, and technology. The test is owned, developed, and published by the College Board, a non-profit organization in the US.

Timing and Length of the Test

The SAT is a timed aptitude test. In total, the test should take 3 hours, with an additional 50 minutes allotted to those that take the optional essay. This does not include time needed for breaks.

Each section is also broken down into timed segments, so as to make sure each student has an equal opportunity to complete the entire test. The sections are timed as such:

  • Reading: 65 mins
  • Writing and Language: 35 mins
  • Math No Calculator: 25 mins
  • Math Calculator: 55 mins
  • Essay (optional): 50 mins

Sections and the Number of Questions

The SAT is organized into the following sections, in chronological order, and each section contains the listed amount of questions. Most questions are multiple choice — with the exception of the optional essay section — and there are some “grid-in” answer questions in the math section (this requires you to write the question down on a paper that is provided to you).  

  1. Reading: 52 questions
  2. Writing and Language: 44 questions
  3. Math No Calculator: 20 questions
  4. Math Calculator: 38 questions
  5. Essay (optional): 1 essay

Cost to Take the SAT

The price of the test is set by the organization that created it: College Board. Currently, the test costs:

  • $46 (no essay)
  • $60 (with essay)

There are also additional fees, depending on your situation. For example, if you’ve taken the test before, or register for the test late, you may be charged an additional fee.

There are, however, fee waivers for the test, depending on your circumstances. Check the College Board’s website to see if you qualify for a fee-waiver.

ACT Overview

The ACT is an abbreviation of American College Testing, and this standardized test evaluates a student’s critical skills and comprehension to determine how they might handle college-level courses. Originally created in 1959, this test has gone through a few revisions and will soon be available to take online. The test is authored and administered by a non-profit organization in the US with the same name (ACT).

Timing and Length of the Test

The ACT is a timed aptitude test. In total, the test should take 2 hours and 55 minutes, with an additional 40 minutes allotted to those that decide to take the optional writing section. This does not include time needed for breaks.

Similar to the SAT, each section of the ACT is further broken down into timed sections to encourage students to not get caught up on a particularly challenging section. They are as follows:

  • English: 45 mins
  • Math: 60 mins
  • Reading: 35 mins
  • Science: 35 mins
  • Writing (optional): 40 mins

Sections and the Number of Questions

The ACT is broken down into the following sections, in chronological order, and with the following amount of questions per section. All questions are multiple choice (with the exception of the optional writing section).

  • English: 75 questions
  • Math: 60 questions
  • Reading: 40 questions
  • Science: 40 questions
  • Writing (optional): 1 essay

Cost to Take the ACT

The price of the test is set by the ACT organization that authored it. Currently, the test costs:

  • $46 (without writing)
  • $62.50 (with writing)

There may also be additional fees, depending on your circumstances. For example, if you need to apply to more than four colleges, or register late, you will be charged an additional fee.

There are also fee waivers for those that cannot afford to pay for the test. According to the ACT, information about the waivers are sent out to high schools across the country every year, so they advise discussing your options with your high school to determine if you are eligible for a fee waiver.

ACT vs SAT Scores

The starkest difference between these two standardized tests lies in their scoring models. Despite this, it is possible to compare and convert the score of one test to the other (see the next section for more on this).

It’s important to note that neither test penalizes for wrong answers. This could be helpful if you’re forced to guess an answer, or move through a particularly difficult question to make sure you’re not spending too much time there.

If you do find you’re stuck on a difficult question, don’t be afraid to take a guess. For the ACT, which offers 5 multiple choice options per question, a guess has a 20 percent chance of being right. For the SAT, which features 4 options per question, a guess has an even greater chance of being correct, with a 25 percent chance. Since the test won’t penalize your answer if it is wrong, it’s better to take the chance and guess than to leave an answer blank.

What Does My Score Mean on the ACT?

The scoring model for the ACT is based on a scale of 1-36 for each section. Your total score is then determined by an average of all four sections scores, which will be between 1-36.

The writing portion of the test is scored between 2-12 based on an analytical scoring rubric, and does not count towards the final grade of your exam.

Here is an example of how the ACT might be scored:

  • English: 20
  • Math: 30
  • Reading: 24
  • Science: 28
  • Final Score: 26
  • Writing (optional): 10

In the end, you will be able to decide which school you would like to send your score to, and you can choose up to four colleges or universities in the US. If you would like to send your scores to more schools, it will cost an additional fee.

What Does My Score Mean on the SAT?

The scoring model for the SAT does not use an average, but instead adds up the total from each section to determine your final score. The two sections are Math and Evidenced Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) and are graded on a scale from 200-800. The score of both sections will be added up to determine your final score, which will be somewhere from 400-1600.  

Just like with the ACT, the optional essay portion of the SAT will not affect your final overall score. It is graded on a scale of 2-8 depending on the following factors: reading, analysis, and writing.

Here is an example of how the SAT might be scored:

  • EBRW: 645
  • Math: 700
  • Final Score: 1345
  • Essay (optional): 4, 6, 3 (13 total)

Just as with the ACT, you can send your SAT scores to up to four colleges or universities of your choice. Additional fees will apply if you need to send your score to more than four schools.

ACT to SAT Conversion

For many students, the first thought they might have after taking the ACT or SAT is “how would I have done on the other test?” Although the two tests are a bit different and contain different questions, it is possible to compare your scores.

But why convert your scores? Score conversion can be extremely helpful in determining which test you would be better at — especially if you take an SAT or ACT practice test before deciding. Score conversions can also come into play when sending your final score to a school. Although most schools accept both the SAT and ACT, some might convert your score to their preferred test to determine your eligibility to enroll.

However, it’s important to note that score conversions are not always accurate. Although the SAT has completed a conversion chart, the ACT has not officially verified or endorsed that same chart, so there’s a chance that it’s not quite accurate. Additionally, the best way to determine how your score would convert between tests is to compare the subsection scores instead of your final total score.

ACT vs SAT: Which is Easier?

Before you ever take the test, you need to determine which one is better for you. Remember that one test is not “easier” than the other, but that your personal skills play a major role in how you might perform in one test over the other.

When discussing the differences of the test, the math section is one factor that really sticks out. On the SAT there are two math sections (one with a calculator and one without), as well as a math formula reference guide. However, the math sections make up 50 percent of your final SAT score.

On the reverse, the ACT only has one math section (with a calculator), no reference guide, and a science section. In this case, the math score would only make up 25 percent of the final ACT score.

If math isn’t your strong suit, then it might be within your interest to focus your studying on the ACT over the SAT. However, if you are highly analytical and enjoy math, then the SAT might be your preferred test.

Keep in mind, the ACT also features a few questions that reference geometry and trigonometry (whereas the SAT focuses more on algebra), so be sure to brush up on formulas and geometry basics while you study for the test.  

ACT and SAT Study Tactics

There are many ways you can practice and prepare for the SAT or ACT as a student. Some of the most common ways include:

  • Official ACT or SAT Prep Booklets (available online with College Board or ACT.org)
  • Free study guides online (either officially endorsed ones or through third party websites)
  • Private or group tutoring, often offered through tutoring specialists or affiliate school programs
  • Practice tests offered through College Board (SAT) or ACT
  • The annual PSAT (Preliminary SAT) offered by your school (often taken in your junior year of high school, although younger students can also qualify)

Depending on your personal preferences, some options might work better than others. Consider how you study for other standardized tests (if you do at all), and how you hope to perform for the SAT or ACT. Are you a nervous test taker, or do you test better when you’ve had some helpful guidance? If you’ve taken the SAT or ACT before and hope to improve your score, consider some of these options to possibly do better on your next try.

Is Test-Prep Tutoring Worth It?

For many students, the thought of taking the SAT or ACT is daunting. You may be thinking about the amount of time it will take to study, practice, and prepare. Will you be taking practice tests or hiring tutors to help you get ready? How much money will you have to spend on simply preparing for the test?

Test-prep tutoring is expensive. Companies that focus on SAT or ACT prep can cost parents upwards of thousands of dollars simply for a few tutoring sessions. The cost is far more substantial than the cost of the actual test. But do those tutoring sessions work?

For some students, it might. If you’re a student that lacks the self-motivation to study hard on your own for the SAT or ACT, then having an experienced tutor available to walk you through it could help you in the long run. Will it increase your score substantially? The answer is: probably not.

According to a 2009 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) — as highlighted by the NYTimes — the average gains of test-prep tutoring classes was about 30 points for the SAT and about 1 point for the ACT. However, test prep courses had been boasting (prior to the NACAC release) that point gains were closer to 255 point for the SAT. Many test-prep organizations have now dropped those false claims as a result of the press release.

This isn’t to say that tutoring and preparing for the test isn’t worth it; but it’s certainly not worth the price of a private tutor. There are plenty of prep books, practice tests, and other forms of advice available for free online. Plus, the College Board (creator of the SAT) has teamed up with Khan Academy to offer free online practice tests and courses for the SAT.

As for the ACT, there are no official free offers, but there are plenty of affordable options that ACT provides online. This includes the official test prep booklet, online courses through Kaplan Online, and more.

Preparing for the ACT and SAT is important, but you also don’t need to spend a fortune to improve your outcomes for the tests.

Merit Scholarships for SAT and the ACT

One of the biggest advantages to taking the SAT or ACT is the potential to earn merit scholarships that can help you pay for your college tuition. Although student financial aid can help you pay for college, the potential to get some of that covered through scholarships is always a great idea.

Here are some of those scholarships you should consider, and how to apply to them:

National Merit Scholarship Corporation

The National Merit Scholarship is awarded to the top PSAT (Preliminary SAT) scores in each state. PSATs are more than just practice tests for your SAT; they can also qualify you for this highly coveted scholarship awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

The NMSC will award up to $2,500 to those that apply and earn the scholarship, but you can earn even more scholarship money from certain schools if you list those schools as your “first choice” when applying through National Merit. This is known as University Sponsorship. To find out more about how to enter the National Merit competition, visit their online portal here.

College Specific Awards

Many colleges also offer scholarships for high SAT or ACT scores. Some of these scholarships can include full-ride, to partial tuition coverage. PrepScholar offers an incomplete list of some of the most common college specific scholarships associated with ACT or SAT performance.

If your school isn’t listed, you can still research their website to find out if they offer merit-based scholarships. Some schools will have specific scholarships that have a short application window, so the sooner you can research your options, the better.

If you find that your score for the ACT or SAT is just below the threshold required by your school of choice, consider retaking the exam to get a better score. Although a high score does not guarantee you a scholarship, it does get you in the door for applying. A slight bump in your score could be the difference between a $2,000 scholarship or a full-ride!

Taking a college entrance exam is nothing to be intimidated by. You may take practice tests, consult your teachers, and estimate your scores on both the SAT and ACT to determine which is better suited to your academic strengths. Remember: wrong answers won’t hurt your score on either test, so focus on using your time strategically and going after questions you are confident in rather than getting stuck on one that is too challenging.

If you already have a good idea of which schools you hope to attend or apply to, it is worth investigating whether those schools or the states they are in offer any scholarships for certain scores on either test. Good luck!

Which Test Should I Take: the SAT or ACT?

Ultimately, since all colleges accept both the ACT and SAT, you should take the test that best plays to your strengths. Once you’ve decided which test works best for you, you can properly utilize your efforts to study, practice, and time yourself properly for each section.

Your default approach should never be to take both the SAT and the ACT, as studying for both simultaneously (unless you have a lot of study time on your hands) can negatively affect your overall scores of both test. It’s better to focus your efforts than to try to multitask.

However, if you do decide to take both tests, give yourself ample time (at least a month) between each test to properly study and prepare. When you’ve completed both, you can decide which results best portrays your skills, and send those results on to your future school.