SAT or ACT? The Ultimate Test Comparison

Should you take the SAT or ACT?

All U.S. colleges and universities accept either college admissions test equally.

No school will require students to submit scores from both tests. However, some U.S. states do require the SAT or ACT for high school graduation.

The SAT and ACT are different tests, and it does matter which one you take in preparation for applying to college. We also encourage students to prep for one test as opposed to both.

If you can focus on one test and hit your target scores, you’ll free up a lot of time for other things, especially those components that college admissions officers really care about: academics, extracurricular activities, and application essays.

We’re here to break down the top differences and similarities between the two exams. We also give you 5 questions to ask to help you determine whether you’re an SAT or an ACT test-taker.

Plus, we’ll give you actionable steps to take from there!

Here’s what we cover in this post:


The SAT vs. the ACT: Top 5 Differences

The SAT and ACT differ in 5 major ways:

  1. Format
  2. Sections
  3. Content
  4. Timing
  5. Scoring

These are pretty big categories!

So does this mean that these tests are complete opposites of each other? Not necessarily.

We elaborate these 5 key differences and their essential nuances below.

Difference #1: Format

As you can see in the below birds-eye views of each test’s structure, the SAT and ACT each follow a fairly different format.

The SAT, for example, starts with both Verbal sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing & Language. It follows these with both Math sections.

The ACT, on the other hand, begins with an English section but follows this with Math and then Reading.

SAT Format

SectionLength (Minutes)Number of Questions
Evidence-Based Reading6552
Writing and Language3544
Math – No Calculator2520
Math – Calculator5538
Optional Essay501
Total3 hours, 50 minutes151

(Note: During the actual test, you will have a 5 minute break after SAT Reading and a 10 minute break after the Math – No Calculator section.)

ACT Format

SectionLength (Minutes)Number of Questions
English4575
Reading3540
Math6060
Science3540
Essay (Optional)401
Total3 hours, 35 minutes216

(Note: During the actual test, you will have a 10 minute break after ACT Math and a 5 minute break after ACT Science if you take the essay.)

Difference #2: Sections

Both tests have 4 sections with an optional fifth section (the essay), but there are 2 prominent differences between these sections:

  • Math: the SAT has two Math sections, while the ACT only has one
  • Science: the ACT has an entire Science section that doesn’t exist on the SAT

Other things to keep in mind: while SAT Reading and ACT Reading are similar, SAT Reading is longer (5 passages, 52 questions).

The opposite is the case for SAT Writing & Language (4 passages, 44 questions) and ACT English (5 passages, 75 questions).

Lastly, a calculator is permitted on only one of the 2 SAT Math sections. It is allowed for the full ACT Math section.

Difference #3: Content

The ACT has more questions in total than the SAT: 216 (ACT) vs. 151 (SAT).

What’s more, depending on the section, ACT questions might emphasize certain content areas differently than SAT questions do, and vice versa.

Take a look at the chart below to see this in action:

SectionContent or Skill Emphasis
SAT ReadingCommand of Evidence
Charts & Graphs
ACT ReadingAuthor’s Purpose
Detail / Line Reference
SAT Writing & LanguageCharts & Graphs
Expression of Ideas
ACT EnglishWriting Strategy
Concision
SAT MathProblem-Solving
Data Analysis
Applied Math
ACT MathSimple Concept Application
ACT ScienceData Analysis

Difference #4: Timing

In general, the ACT has greater time constraints per section. This allows far less time per question throughout the entire test.

SAT Time Per QuestionACT Time Per Question
SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading75 Seconds52.5 Seconds
SAT Writing and Language vs. ACT English47.7 Seconds36 Seconds
SAT Math vs. ACT Math82.8 Seconds60 seconds
ScienceN/A52.5 Seconds

Difference #5: Scoring

The ACT and SAT both follow very different scoring systems.

A total SAT Score ranges from 400-1600, the sum of a student’s Math sectional score and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing sectional score:

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (200-800)  
  • Math (200-800)

The optional SAT essay is scored separately and does not impact a student’s total SAT score. Students receive three scores across three categories, Reading, Analysis, Writing, ranging from 2-8.

We take a deeper dive into SAT Scoring in a separate post.

A composite ACT score ranges from 1-36.  The composite score is an average of the scores in 4 subject areas: Math, Science, Reading, and English.  

  • ACT Composite: 1-36
  • Subject Scores: Math, Science, Reading, Writing (each receives a score between 1-36)
  • Optional Essay: 2-12 (does not impact Composite or Subject Scores)

You can learn more about ACT scoring here.

We’ll be covering SAT and ACT score comparison later on in this post (jump there now).


The SAT vs. the ACT: Top 4 Similarities

Despite these differences, the SAT and ACT do have a lot of crossover.

We’ve boiled this down to 4 key similarities:

  1. SAT Reading and ACT Reading
  2. ACT English and SAT Writing & Language
  3. General ACT and SAT Math content
  4. Overall length of time

Similarity #1: SAT and ACT Reading

Yes, SAT Reading is longer than ACT Reading, as we established earlier. It also has some question types that aren’t on ACT Reading, and timing isn’t as much of an issue on SAT Reading as it is on ACT Reading.

But both sections do have a lot more in common than meets the eye:

  • Each has a dual passage (two shorter passages in one)
  • You don’t need any outside content knowledge to answer any SAT or ACT Reading question
  • Both sections require strong strategy
  • Both sections are generally interested in main ideas, big picture themes, and author’s argument
  • They share a lot of question types, including Words-in-Context, Detail, and Main Idea questions

Similarity #2: ACT English and SAT Writing & Language

These two sections do differ in terms of length. But they do have some significant similarities:

  • Both test the same 13 grammar rules
  • Each section consists roughly of 50% grammar questions and 50% expression of ideas questions
  • The passages themselves are often similar in tone and style
  • Both tests are interested in the way an author expresses her ideas throughout a text

Similarity #3: ACT and SAT Math Content

As we discussed above, the SAT has 2 math sections, while the ACT only has one. SAT Math is also very interested in applied math (i.e., students’ problem-solving and data analysis skills), while ACT Math questions tend to be more literally concept-based.

Yet the math principles behind SAT and ACT Math sections are generally in alignment. These concepts will definitely surface on both tests, even if they have different emphases:

  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Pr-Algebra
  • Algebra I and II
  • Advanced Math
  • Word Problems
  • Data Analysis

Test-takers also complete roughly the same number of math questions on both tests: 58 questions on SAT Math and 60 questions on ACT Math.

Similarity #4: Length of Time

As we discussed above, the timing on each individual section differs dramatically between both the SAT and ACT.

However, in total, both exams run about the same length of time: 3 hours and 50 minutes for the SAT (with essay), and 3 hours and 35 minutes for the ACT (with essay).

This means that regardless of which test you take, you’ll be in that testing room for roughly the same amount of time!


SAT and ACT Score Comparison Chart

In 2018, ACT and the CollegeBoard completed what’s called a “Concordance Study,” which examined the relationship between ACT scores and SAT scores. ACT emphasizes that this study does not “equate scores” but can be a “helpful tool for finding comparable scores.”

Translation: It’s impossible to pinpoint exact equivalences, but it is possible to approximate.

Here is one of the score comparison tables that resulted from this study, which compares ACT Composites to SAT Composites. Notice how this table also includes an “SAT Range,” designed to compensate for fluctuations in test difficulty.

ACT also has a digital tool on its website that allows for quick score comparison calculations:

ACT and SAT Score Comparison Tool

Should I Take the SAT or ACT? 5 Questions to Ask

Now you know the major differences and similarities between the SAT and ACT. What happens next?

We’ve assembled 5 easy questions to ask in order to choose your best fit test. These have to do with the following:

  1. Speed
  2. Math
  3. Data analysis skills
  4. Test prep timeline
  5. State testing requirements

Question #1: How’s your speed?

For most students, time is one of the biggest factors that influences their decision to take the SAT vs. ACT.

Earlier in this post, we broke down the time allotted per question on both the SAT and ACT, across sections. The ACT offers students far less time per question than the SAT.

In general, if you struggle with speed and pacing on standardized tests, the SAT is likely the better test for you.

If you struggle with reading speed, working quickly through math questions, or quickly interpreting charts and data, the ACT may be difficult for you to finish on time. With time crunches, students are also more likely to race through sections and sacrifice accuracy.

Question #2: How’s your math?

In general, if you are stronger in math than verbal skills, you may fare better on the SAT.

Here’s why: the SAT has 2 major scores, (1) Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and (2) Math.  Math makes up 50% of your SAT Score.  

On the other hand, the ACT Composite Score is an average of 4 subject scores: Reading, Writing, Math, and Science.  Math contributes to 25% of your composite ACT Score.  If you tend to struggle with Math on Standardized Tests, the ACT might be better for you.

In general, the ACT is better for “hiding” a weak subject area, since your composite score is an average of four subscores and your main SAT score is a sum of 2 major scores.  

Question #3: Do you feel comfortable with Science?

The Science section makes up 25% of your Composite ACT score and doesn’t even exist on the SAT, so your comfort with this section is a huge factor to consider.  

If your strength lies in analyzing experiments and interpreting charts, you’ll probably like the ACT Science section. It doesn’t require you to know many specific science facts, but it does test your ability to read about specific experiments and their results.

You are required to understand and analyze the experimental process and also the data and results of the experiment. Thus, if data analysis under timed conditions is your superpower, the ACT could be your test.

Question #4: How much practice do you need to achieve your target score?

The CollegeBoard has released 10 official SAT practice tests. ACT, on the other hand, has only released 6 official practice tests.

The key to maximizing your test score is building a study plan that is based on targeted review of your key weakness areas. A critical component of this plan is effective review of high-quality practice questions that mimic the questions you will see on the actual test.  

And in this respect, the edge goes to the SAT for having better test questions available to students for practice.

Of course, there are many publishers that create additional preparation materials and practice questions for both tests.  However, when it comes to practice questions, even the best publishers cannot create practice questions that are as close to the real test questions as the test makers themselves.

Question #5: Does your state require the SAT or ACT?

As of 2019, there are several U.S. states that require students to take either the ACT or the SAT in order to graduate. The data below is adapted from 2019 EdWeek data.  

StateHigh School Test
AlabamaACT
ColoradoSAT
ConnecticutSAT
DelawareSAT
HawaiiACT
IdahoSAT or ACT
IllinoisSAT
KentuckyACT
LouisianaACT or WorkKeys
MaineSAT
MichiganSAT
MississippiACT or MAAP end-of-course exams
MontanaACT
NebraskaACT
NevadaACT
New HampshireSAT
North DakotaACT or WorkKeys
North CarolinaACT
OhioSAT or ACT
OklahomaSAT or ACT
Rhode IslandSAT
TennesseeSAT or ACT
West VirginiaSAT
WisconsinACT
WyomingACT

If you live in one of these states, you should still focus on your preferred test. If your preferred test is the same as the required test, then great! This will allow you to SuperScore if the colleges on your list permit this.

If not, then just make sure you sit for the mandatory test at some point, but we don’t necessarily recommend that students invest in prep for this required exam.

Remember: No U.S. college or university requires applicants to submit both ACT and SAT scores. That’s why it is best to sit for the test likely to give you the highest possible score.


What Should You Do Next? Step-by-Step Instructions

If you haven’t decided on SAT vs. ACT yet, now is the best time to take the process to the next step.  

Step 1: Take a full-length official SAT

  • Visit PrepMaven’s Free Official SAT Practice Test page and download one of our 10 free SAT practice tests
  • Visit PrepMaven’s SAT Proctoring Page for detailed instructions on how to self-administer the test
  • Take a full-test under timed testing conditions!

Step 2: Take a full-length official ACT (the following week)

  • Visit PrepMaven’s Free Official ACT Practice Test page and download one of our 6 free ACT practice tests
  • Visit PrepMaven’s ACT Proctoring Page for detailed instructions on how to self-administer the test
  • Take a full-test under timed testing conditions!

Step 3: Determine which test you performed better on

  • Compare the results, paying specific attention to:
    • Overall composite score (refer to our SAT and ACT comparison chart above)
    • Math performance vs. Verbal performance
    • Timing issues (if applicable)
    • Accuracy on ACT science
  • Select the test most aligned with your strengths and most likely to give you the highest possible score
  • Focus your prep on that test

Step 4: Determine when you should take the SAT or ACT

  • You’ll want to develop a thoughtful testing schedule that allows you sufficient time to prep, allow for re-takes, and complements your other obligations
  • We developed 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help you get started!

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.