ACT vs SAT: The Complete Guide

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If you are a high school student planning for the college admissions process, one of the most significant decisions you have to make is choosing between taking the SAT or the ACT. 

In 2020, more than two million students completed the SAT and about 1.7 million students completed the ACT. This guide will help you make an informed decision about which test is better suited to your knowledge and testing style. 

The SAT was created in the 1920s to serve as part of the admissions process for leading Ivy League schools, like Harvard. The original SAT test included the Math and English sections that we are so familiar with, but also included sections in Latin! Thankfully, the Latin section was removed fairly early on and the SAT has undergone constant changes ever since. 

From the beginning, the SAT has been marred by criticism that it does not properly or fairly measure college readiness. Many have accused the SAT of prioritizing a particular kind of intelligence that reinforces social privilege. The growth and evolution of the SAT is best understood as a reaction to this criticism. As the SAT seeks to continuously adapt the test to focus more on college readiness than alleged innate aptitude. 

The ACT was created in 1959 in Iowa. It was designed to be a foil for the SAT and successfully carved out a market for itself in the Midwest. Indeed, ever since its inception, the ACT has been dominant in the midwest and southern states, while the SAT has been dominant in the northeast and on the coasts. 

This trend has proved remarkably consistent, but the ACT has been gaining ground on the SAT for generations. Many now regard the ACT as the more balanced and equitable test. 

ACT vs SAT: Everything You Need to Know

Click above to watch a video on the ACT vs SAT.

What are the differences between the SAT and the ACT?

Though both the SAT and the ACT test college readiness and knowledge acquired in high school, there are several important differences between them. 

Let’s start with the basics. The SAT test and the ACT test are both administered seven times a year. The registration deadline for the SAT is typically about four weeks before the test, whereas the deadline for the ACT is typically about five or six weeks before the test. 

  • The cost of the exams is very similar – it costs $52 to register for the SAT and $55 for the ACT. The SAT composite score is recorded from 400-1600 and the ACT composite score is from 1-36. There is a separate score on both tests for the essay component. 

In terms of timing, both tests are three hours long, but there are notable differences in how the sections are timed. On the SAT test, the Reading Section has 52 questions in 65 minutes; the Writing and Language Section has 44 questions in 35 minutes; the Math Section has 58 questions in 80 minutes. Whereas, on the ACT, the Reading Section has 40 questions in 35 minutes; the English Section* has 75 questions in 45 minutes; the Math Section* has 60 questions in 60 minutes; the Science Section* has 40 questions in 35 minutes. 

In total, the SAT affords you about 70 seconds for each question, whereas the ACT only gives you 50 seconds for each question. This brings us to one of the most important differences between the two tests – you are given significantly more time to answer SAT questions than ACT questions.

  • If you are someone who works quickly through the material, this might point you in the direction of the ACT. Conversely, if you prefer to take your time and double-check your work, the SAT may be more appropriate. 

You may have also noticed that the ACT includes a Science Section, whereas the SAT does not. This might make you favor the ACT if you are strong at science or favor the SAT if you are weak at science, but this would most likely be a mistake. The most important thing to understand about the ACT science section is that it does not really test you on “science” at all. 

  • You will not be asked about evolution, inertia, chemical reactions, or anything else from science class.
  • Instead, you will be asked to assess data and charts and arguments – skills relevant to science, but also relevant to every other subject. If you are good at analyzing data and graphs, you may consider taking the ACT over the SAT. 

Both tests have an optional writing component in the form of an essay. However, there is a considerable difference between the two assignments. On the ACT, you will be given a set of three arguments and asked to assess which of the arguments is strongest. On the SAT, you will be given an essay that has already been written and asked to evaluate and critique the essay. 

  • On the SAT you will be asked to focus more on the supporting evidence and structure, whereas on the ACT you will be asked to focus more on assessing rhetorical merit.
  • This means that if you are good at formulating arguments or criticizing rhetorical skills you should consider taking the ACT, whereas if you are strong at critical reading and analyzing textual evidence you should consider taking the SAT. 

The ACT English Test and the SAT Writing and Language Test are equivalent and nearly identical. The SAT tends to use slightly more confusing phrasing and employs more tricks and diversions, but in recent years even this difference between the two sections has begun to fade. There are a couple of key differences. 

  • Firstly, the ACT English Test usually uses text at about a tenth-grade reading level, whereas the SAT may use text that varies from a ninth-grade reading level all the way to a college level.
  • Additionally, the SAT often employs graphs and charts in the English Section, whereas the ACT confines this stuff to the Science Section.
  • Though there are no major differences between these two tests, you may favor the ACT test if you are less confident in your critical reading skills as you will likely have to deal with simpler passages. 

The ACT and SAT Reading Sections are also generally very similar. There is however one important distinction that you need to consider. The ACT has four reading passages of relatively long length (usually around 750-900 words), whereas the SAT has five reading passages of slightly shorter length (usually around 500-600 words). 

  • Essentially, if you find it harder to take in information the longer you are reading a passage for, the SAT is probably more suited to you. Whereas, if you would prefer having to focus on fewer discrete passages, the ACT is more appropriate. 

The Math Section is probably the area of the test where the SAT and ACT most diverge. The ACT allows you to use your calculator for the entire test, whereas the SAT test is divided into a calculator and non-calculator section. So, if you are strong at mental math, the SAT may be more appropriate for you, whereas if you have mastered the functions on your calculator and prefer deeper, less arithmetic-based problems, then the ACT is better. 

  • Additionally, the ACT Math Section is all multiple choice, whereas the SAT Math section contains a majority of multiple-choice questions but also some grid-ins. If you prefer always having multiple choice answers to choose from, pick the ACT. 

Most importantly, there are also key differences in what math material the two tests focus on. The primary distinction is that the ACT has a greater focus on trigonometry and geometry. Furthermore, the SAT provides you with a list of geometry area and volume formulas when you take the test, whereas the ACT expects you to memorize all these formulas. 

  • And, the ACT tests more complicated material – like matrices and logarithms. It is important to note, in case the preceding sentences are discouraging, that neither the trigonometry nor the logarithms test on the ACT is at a particularly high level.

You could learn all you need to master ACT trig. or logarithms in one or two lessons with your Transizion tutor! But, when considering which test is going to be more difficult for you, your relative mastery of trigonometry, logarithms, and geometry should be an important part of your decision. 

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Is the ACT or SAT more difficult?

Any test prep tutor working with high school students is asked this question very regularly. And, unfortunately, the honest answer is always disappointing. Neither test is easier or more difficult. Which test you will find easier is primarily determined by which subjects you excel in at school. 

  • The easiest way to determine which test is more difficult for you is to take a practice diagnostic test for each. You will get a better feel for the differences between the two tests and get a detailed breakdown of which subjects you are struggling in and what you need to do to get prepared.
  • After you have taken the two tests you will likely have chosen which you prefer and then begun to focus on studying. 

However, do not be afraid to change track. If you realize that something isn’t working, or simply feel you are stagnating, consider switching to the other test (as long as your test date is a little while away).

The vast majority of material you use to study for one test will carry over to the other, so there will be little wasted time and the possibility of new momentum. 

Do colleges prefer the ACT or the SAT?

Every American college will accept either the ACT or SAT. Though, there is a geographic bias among test takers, there is little bias among colleges. You will not be held back in the admissions process because you took one test as opposed to the other. 

  • It is worth noting, however, that different states have different graduation requirements. There are eleven states that require students to take the ACT – Alabama, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
  • And there are an additional ten states that require students to take the SAT – Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. 

The state colleges in those states tend also to narrowly prefer candidates who have taken those tests. So, if you live in one of those states or intend to apply to a state school in one of those states, it makes sense to focus your attention on the test that you are required to take. 

Should you take the ACT or the SAT?

At this point, you might be feeling slightly inundated with information and overwhelmed. This is a lot of information to take in, and the differences between two standardized tests hardly make for gripping reading. So, let’s break it down as simply as possible. 

  • If you are a student who is strong with data analysis and interpretation of graphs and charts, the ACT test is probably going to be better for you. If you are a student who relies on their calculator and dislikes mental math, the ACT is for you. If you enjoy debate and criticizing rhetoric, the ACT is for you. 

Conversely, if you are a student who enjoys dissecting the use of evidence in essays, the SAT is probably going to be better for you. If you are a student who dislikes trigonometry and geometry, the SAT is easier for you. If you find mental math comes naturally to you and the calculator wastes time, the SAT is for you. 

  • Having said all that, the most important consideration is likely going to relate to timing. There is such a discrepancy between the amount of time you are afforded per question on the ACT versus the SAT. To reiterate, it’s 50 seconds for the ACT and 70 seconds for the SAT.
  • That is 20 seconds per question! If you work quickly and confidently, take the ACT. If you work slowly and methodically, take the SAT. 

But, also consider that the SAT allows you longer to answer each question because it also employs more tricks and diversions to try and make you pick the incorrect answer.

  • These tricks and diversions can be easily taught to students so they can watch out for them (ask your tutor), but they are nonetheless a nuisance. If you favor direct questions with no nonsense, pick the ACT. If you would prefer more time and feel comfortable outfoxing the test designers, pick the SAT. 

Finally, it is notably more difficult to get a perfect score on the SAT than the ACT. So, if you are a perfectionist, chasing that perfect score for Stanford or Princeton, the ACT is more likely to give you what you need. 

As you can see, whether you choose the ACT or SAT is entirely up to you. If you are still having trouble deciding, talk to your parents, teachers, tutors, and guidance counselors. They may be able to provide you with useful advice about your strengths and weaknesses.

At least after reading this and talking to your mentors and guardians you will at least be able to make the most informed decision possible.   

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ACT to SAT Comparison Chart

ACT SAT
Cost $55 ($70 with optional essay). $52 ($68 with optional essay).
Registration Deadline About five to six weeks before the test date. About four weeks before the test date.
Test Dates Seven per year (February, April, June, July, September, October, December).  Seven per year (March, May, June, August, October, November, December). 
Timing 2 hours and 55 minutes.

3 hours and 35 minutes with essay. 

3 hours. 

3 hours and 50 minutes with essay.

Order of sections English

Math

Reading

Science

Essay (optional)

Reading

Writing and Language

Math – no calculator 

Math – calculator

Essay (optional)

Number of questions English – 75 questions in 45 minutes. 

Math – 60 questions in 60 minutes. 

Reading – 40 questions in 35 minutes. 

Science – 40 questions in 35 minutes. 

Optional essay – 1 essay in 40 minutes. 

Reading – 52 questions in 65 minutes. 

Writing and Language – 44 questions in 35 minutes. 

Math (no calc.) – 20 questions in 25 minutes. 

Math (calc.) – 38 questions in 55 minutes. 

Optional essay – 1 essay in 50 minutes. 

Scoring Scores range from 1 – 36. Each section is scored the same way and then the composite score is found from taking the average of the four. The essay uses a 2-12 scale.  Scores range from 400 – 1600. 

The Reading and Writing tests are scored together from 200-800. And, the Math test is also scored 200-800. The composite score is produced by adding them together. 

The essay uses a 1-8 scale.

Penalty for wrong answer No No
Optional score reporting Yes Yes
Test fees waived for some students Yes Yes
Official Information www.act.org www.collegeboard.com

ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart

In recent years, more and more students prepare by taking a practice test for both tests. You may be confused about how your scores compare across the two different tests. This chart will show you exactly what you need to know. 

SAT Composite Score ACT Composite Score
1570-1600 36
1540-1560 35
1500-1530 34
1460-1490 33
1420-1450 32
1390-1410 31
1360-1380 30
1320-1350 29
1290-1310 28
1260-1280 27
1220-1250 26
1190-1210 25
1160-1180 24
1130-1150 23
1100-1120 22
1070-1090 21
1040-1060 20
1000-1030 19
960-990 18
920-950 17
880-910 16
830-870 15
780-820 14
720-770 13
680-710 12
640-670 11
600-630 10

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