SAT vs ACT: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: Step-by-step plan for choosing between the SAT and ACT

Taking the SAT or the ACT is a big part of the college admissions process.

But many students and families don’t know which test to choose, and they miss out on significant improvements to their admissions chances.

One of our students got the equivalent of a 200-point boost on her SAT score because she chose the right test. That’s huge

If you want to optimize your test scores, download this strategy guide to help you decide which test better plays to your strengths.

Then read on to learn more about the differences between the SAT and the ACT, with real examples of questions from each test.

We also use data from college admissions to sneak an inside look as to how today’s students are using the SAT and ACT to get into top colleges.

Jump to section:

SAT vs ACT at a glance
How colleges (and other programs) use the SAT and ACT
Strategy differences: SAT vs ACT scores
SAT Math vs ACT Math
SAT Evidence-Based Reading vs ACT Reading
SAT Language & Writing vs ACT English
ACT Science
ACT Essay
SAT vs ACT test dates
Next steps

SAT or ACT? Follow our step-by-step guide to decide

Bonus Download: Step-by-step guide to decide whether you should take the SAT or ACT


SAT vs ACT at a glance

The SAT and the ACT are the two main tests used by colleges and universities in the US (and sometimes internationally) for admissions purposes.

Both tests cover basic high school material and are used to measure college readiness.

Here’s a quick look at the main similarities and differences:

SATACT
Test length180 minutes, 154 questions175 minutes, 215 questions 
(with essay: 215 minutes, 216 questions)
Test sectionsEvidence-Based Reading
Writing & Language
Math (no calculator)
Math (with calculator)
Reading
English
Math
Science
Essay (optional)
Scoring400–16001–36
Section scoringEvidence-Based Reading & Writing (200–800)
Math (200–800)
Reading (1–36)
English (1–36)
Math (1–36)
Science (1–36)
Writing (2–12)
Incorrect answersNo penalty for wrong answers (this used to be different)No penalty for wrong answers
Math One section doesn’t allow a calculator
Some questions aren’t multiple-choice
58 questions in 75 minutes
Includes more advanced math, and more geometry than on the SAT
60 questions in 60 minutes
ReadingQuestions tend to be more ambiguous
5 passages
52 questions in 65 minutes
Questions are more direct.
4 passages
40 questions in 35 minutes
EnglishSimilar to the ACT
44 questions in 35 minutes
Similar to the SAT, but faster-paced
75 questions in 45 minutes
ScienceNo separate Science section, but a science passage on the Reading sectionScience section testing data interpretation and scientific reasoning
40 questions in 35 minutes
EssayDiscontinuedOptional (but most students in 2022 aren’t taking it)
1 essay in 40 minutes
SchedulingOffered throughout the yearOffered throughout the year

Most students will score better on one test than the other. Grab our handy step-by-step guide to figure out which test is better for you!

Read on for an insider look at how colleges are currently using the SAT and ACT.


How colleges (and other programs) use the SAT and ACT

Both tests are accepted equally by colleges for admissions purposes. 

Princeton East Pyne
Princeton University

These days, about half the students in the US take the SAT, while half take the ACT. This largely breaks down along geographic lines. 

Many states have students take one of the tests in school—even as a graduation requirement—which leads to high participation rates.

The SAT is more popular on the East Coast and West Coast, along with Illinois, Michigan, Texas, and Colorado:

SAT participation rates by state

The ACT is more popular in the South and Midwest:

ACT participation rates by state

If we compare SAT and ACT participation rates for each state, our map looks like this, with just a handful of states (Oregon and South Carolina) where the tests are equally popular:

Comparing SAT and ACT participation rates

At the top schools in the US, more students submit the SAT than submit the ACT:

SAT vs ACT participation rates at top schools

At Ivy League schools and other top schools on the East and West Coasts, roughly 70% of students submit SAT scores, while roughly 45% of students submit ACT scores.

At some top schools located in the Midwest or in the South (like Duke, WashU, and Notre Dame), more students submit the ACT.

Duke University
Duke University

Looking at the graph, you’ll notice that at most schools there is some overlap between the SAT and the ACT. This overlap represents the number of students who submitted excellent scores for both tests. At Ivy League and similarly competitive schools, about 20% of the freshman class submitted scores for both tests.

Of course, many more students would have taken both the SAT and the ACT but only would have submitted the test with the higher score. This highlights how for students aiming at competitive schools, it’s increasingly common to take both tests!

It's increasingly common for students to take both the SAT and the ACT

(Our planning guide walks students through the process of trying both tests at home and determining which score is higher. Grab the step-by-step guide here!)

Colleges do not prefer one test over another for admissions purposes, and there is no advantage from submitting scores for both tests, so students should submit scores for only the test where their score is higher.

Submit only the test with the higher score

To determine which score is higher, use the official conversion charts to translate SAT scores to ACT scores and vice versa.

These conversion charts correct for the different score distributions for the SAT and the ACT. 

In terms of raw numbers, scores for the SAT tend to skew a bit higher:

Comparing the score distributions of the SAT and ACT

There are more “high” scores awarded for the SAT than for the ACT.

This doesn’t mean that the ACT is harder, though! 

Colleges use the official SAT–ACT Concordance tables to align the scores so they more accurately reflect equivalent achievement levels. Using these SAT–ACT conversion tables, the distribution of scores line up perfectly:

ACT vs SAT concordance histogram

Read more about how to convert your SAT score to an ACT score (or vice versa) here.

For other programs

Both the SAT and ACT are also used for admissions to special programs for gifted high school and middle school students

For example, the well-known Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and Northwestern University Center for Talent Development both use SAT and ACT scores for younger students to demonstrate that they’re working above their grade level. These test scores are requirements to take special accelerated classes with other gifted students.

(In fact, I first took the SAT as a sixth-grader through Northwestern’s program! It was a good experience that opened doors to me as a high-achieving student in high school.)

Northwestern University
Northwestern University

One big difference in how the SAT and ACT are used is that while both tests have an official practice version…the PreACT is just a practice test with no added benefits, but the PSAT can be important for high-achieving students.

This is because the PSAT, when taken as a high school junior, is the basis for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Scoring very highly on the PSAT can be awarded a variety of scholarships that add up to $35 million every year. Some colleges even offer automatic admission to National Merit students.

So if you’re a high-achieving student (scoring in the top 5% of standardized tests), it’s worth it to take the PSAT seriously!

Not sure how to determine which test will be a better fit? Grab our planning guide and follow the steps to figure out which test plays to your strengths.


Strategy differences: SAT vs ACT scores

Key differences in how the SAT and ACT are scored have important consequences for strategy.

Burying a weaker math score

Both tests have four sections, but the SAT only gives you two sub-scores: Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (formerly known as Verbal) and Math. These two scores are added together to give the Total SAT score.

The ACT, however, gives you four separate sub-scores: Reading, English, Math, and Science. These are averaged together to give the Composite ACT score.

The key upshot of this is that on the ACT it’s easier to “bury” a weak Math score, since Math makes up only 25% of the Composite ACT, versus 50% of the Total SAT.

student thinking and studying

For example, let’s imagine that Rishi is a strong humanities student (in the 85th percentile) but weaker in math (in the 45th percentile, just a bit below average). He took the SAT and got a 650 Reading & Writing score but a 510 in Math. His Total SAT would be 1160, which is in the 69th percentile.

However, Rishi then took the ACT. He did equally well on the ACT and got a 30 Reading, 28 English, 18 Math, and 26 Science. These would average to a 26 Composite ACT, which is in the 82nd percentile. That is considerably higher than his 69th percentile on the SAT!

For the sake of comparison, we can then convert Rishi’s ACT score into an SAT score. Rishi’s 26 ACT is equivalent to a 1240 SAT—an 80-point increase, even with the same results. 

So even though he did exactly as well on the SAT as on the ACT, Rishi’s ACT score is considerably higher than his SAT score.

This is just one example of how savvy students and families can use the differences between the two tests to gain an advantage for college admissions. To figure out which test better plays to your strengths, follow these steps to try the SAT and ACT and convert your scores to compare them.

But wait, you might be thinking! What about the ACT Science section?

As we’ll discuss in more detail below, the ACT Science doesn’t actually require much Science knowledge, and mostly uses critical thinking, reading, and data interpretation skills—so many strong readers do well on this section, regardless of their grades in science classes.

For students who struggle with pacing

If you struggle with pacing, the ACT might be harder and more stressful for you.

the ACT is faster-paced than the SAT

Every section of the ACT is faster-paced than the corresponding section on the SAT, with fewer seconds on average to answer each question:

Pacing for each section on the SAT:

  • Reading: 65 minutes, 52 questions → 75 seconds per question
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions → 47.7 seconds per question
  • Math with No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions → 75 seconds per question
  • Math with Calculator: 55 minutes, 38 questions → 86.8 seconds per question
  • Total: 180 minutes, 154 questions

Pacing for each section on the ACT:

  • English: 45 minutes, 75 questions → 36 seconds per question
  • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions → 60 seconds per question
  • Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions → 52.5 seconds per question
  • Science: 35 minutes, 40 questions → 52.5 seconds per question
  • Writing (optional essay): 40 minutes, 1 question
  • Total: 175 minutes, 215 questions (with Essay: 215 minutes, 216 questions)

Time management is an important component of both tests, and one of the big challenges on both the SAT and the ACT is to finish each section in the allotted time.

However, given the different pacing requirements, students who prefer to work a little less quickly might prefer the SAT. 

student studying

For students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

Students with a documented disability can request certain accommodations on both the SAT and the ACT. (We discuss accommodations in more detail in our SAT Handbook and ACT Handbook.)

One of the most common accommodations for students with ADHD, Anxiety, and other learning disabilities is extra time on the tests, typically either time-and-a-half or double time.

We have heard from many students and families that with the extra time accommodation, many students with learning disabilities prefer the ACT over the SAT. The style of the questions on the ACT is more direct and black-and-white, and many students find this more comfortable. The main difficulty with the ACT is the faster pacing, and with extra time this is less of an issue.

For the top scorers

If you’re a SUPER high scorer—in the top 1-2% and aiming at Ivy-League or similarly super-competitive schools—you might look to see which tests might set you apart more. 

University of Chicago quad
The University of Chicago

Because of the rarity of scores, a high SAT Reading & Writing is more impressive than a high ACT English and Reading. 

The vast majority of students at top schools score very highly on the English and Reading sections of the ACT. At Harvard, UChicago, Duke, MIT, and CalTech, three quarters of the incoming class scored a 35 or 36 on the ACT English:

ACT ranges highest English

On the other hand, perfect scores on the SAT are much less common! We don’t know the exact numbers, but definitely less than a quarter of the students at any of the top schools scored a 780–800 on the SAT Reading & Writing:

For Math, it’s flipped—a high ACT Math or Science is more impressive than a high SAT Math.

At the top schools, perfect 800 SAT Math scores are actually very common. At all of these fifteen schools, at least a quarter of the incoming class scored a perfect 800 on the SAT Math:

A perfect 36 on the ACT Math is much more rare. Only three engineering schools—CalTech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd—boasted at least a quarter of their incoming class with a perfect 36:

If you’re one of the rare high-achieving students able to get those high scores on SAT Reading & Writing or ACT Math and ACT Science, they’ll really show off your abilities. 

student

Of course, to use these differences to your advantage, you need to try both tests and see where you shine! Download our step-by-step guide to take a full practice test for the SAT and the ACT at home, and then convert your scores to see what’s higher!


SAT vs ACT Math

The Math sections on the SAT and ACT have some significant differences.

1. Material

Both tests cover material from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. But the ACT also includes some Trigonometry concepts that don’t appear on the SAT. The ACT has significantly more Geometry questions (30-45% of questions) than the SAT (less than 10%). And the ACT includes more advanced Algebra II material than the SAT does, like matrices and logarithmic functions.

All of that together means that the ACT Math covers more advanced material than the SAT Math. That’s why it’s much harder to get a perfect score on the ACT Math than on the SAT Math!

For example, here are a few ACT questions that would never appear on the SAT:

advanced ACT math problems
sample ACT math problems created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved — answers at the end of the post

The SAT, on the other hand, has reasoning and data analysis questions that don’t appear on the ACT Math.

Instead, the ACT tests this skill on the Science section. Check out this SAT problem:

SAT math problem with data analysis
SAT data analysis problem from test #10 — answers at the end of the post

2. Formula sheet

Another thing making the ACT Math more difficult is that the ACT doesn’t provide any formulas. Students need to memorize important formulas like the Pythagorean Theorem, the Quadratic Formula, and the area of a circle or a triangle.

The SAT, on the other hand, provides students with some (but not all) of the formulas needed on the test. These appear on the first page of each math section:

SAT Math formula sheet
SAT Math formula sheet — appears at the beginning of sections 3 and 4

3. Number of answer choices

A third difference that makes the ACT Math slightly more challenging is that the ACT Math gives you five possible answer choices, while the SAT Math gives four choices. This means that if you have to guess, you have a lower chance of guessing correctly. It also means that if you’re solving a problem by working backwards from the answer choices (a valid strategy), you’ll have one more number to plug in. 

4. Grid-in questions

On the other hand, the SAT has a more challenging format for a few of its questions. On the SAT Math, 13 of the 58 questions aren’t multiple-choice. Instead, students have to write in their answers (and fill in the grid below each digit). These questions tend to be harder for most students, since it’s nearly impossible to guess on them.

sample SAT math grid-in problems
sample SAT math grid-in problems (test #10)

5. No calculator

On the ACT, students can use a calculator for the entire Math section. On the SAT, there is a shorter no-calculator section.

Especially for today’s “digital native” students, it can be surprisingly difficult to work without a calculator. We’ve worked with many strong math students who nevertheless have weak arithmetic skills and end up making a lot of simple mistakes. This is something to keep in mind when considering the SAT!

To see which test is a better fit for your math skills, use our guide to try both tests and compare your scores!

6. Pacing

The pacing is notably different on the ACT compared to the SAT. 

The ACT Math section comprises 60 questions in 60 minutes, so students have exactly 60 seconds per question. 

student with books


SAT Evidence-Based Reading vs ACT Reading

The Reading sections on the SAT and ACT are a bit more similar to each other, but they still feel quite different to many students.

The ACT has four passages, while the SAT has five passages. 

As with the rest of the test, the ACT is faster-paced, with 52.5 seconds per question (40 questions in 35 minutes) compared to 75 seconds per question (52 questions in 65 minutes) on the SAT.

ACT Reading passage questions feel more direct and less abstract. Passages tend to be easier than the passages on the SAT, which can be quite old (18th-century political speeches) or abstract (statistical concepts).

The language of the questions in general tends to be more complex or nuanced on the SAT.

The SAT will frequently ask students to pinpoint the place in the text that provides evidence for their answer. Roughly 40% of the questions are interconnected: one question will refer to the answer of another question. 

Questions from this SAT Reading passage, from test #5
Questions from the SAT Reading passage above (from test #5) — #11 and #12 are paired evidence questions

The ACT feels snappier—questions are both faster-paced and more direct. The ACT doesn’t ask students to cite specific lines as evidence for their answer.

Typically two of the SAT Reading passages have data visualizations or tables. The ACT Reading passages are only text, even when they refer to scientific concepts.

A social science SAT passage with a data visualization (test #5)
A social science SAT passage with a data visualization (test #5)


SAT Language & Writing vs ACT English

The ACT English and SAT Language & Writing sections are the most similar sections to each other.

Compare these questions from the SAT:

SAT Language & Writing sample questions
Questions from the SAT Language & Writing section (test #5)

Both ask students to correct the grammar of sentences in the context of short passages.

. . .with these questions from the ACT:

sample ACT English
sample ACT English passage created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved — answers at the end of the post

Both tests also ask students to consider how to improve the language of the passage to communicate ideas more effectively by writing more concisely, rearranging sentences, adding in transition words, and so on.

student studying

The ACT English passages might include some questions about the passage as a whole. The SAT language & Writing section doesn’t ask this type of question, just questions about specific sentences.

As usual, the ACT is a little faster-paced than the SAT. The ACT English section has 75 questions in 45 minutes, which gives students just 36 seconds per question! The SAT is a bit more generous, with 44 questions in 35 minutes, or 47.7 seconds per question.


ACT Science

Of course, the presence of the Science section on the ACT is one of the most obvious differences between the SAT and the ACT.

The Science section of the ACT features seven passages describing scientific hypotheses or experiments drawing from different types of science: molecular biology, inorganic chemistry, mechanical physics, astronomy, environmental science, etc.

All but 1–2 questions per test can be answered without any specific science knowledge—and even these few questions are usually very basic information, like the idea that calories are energy.

Each passage is accompanied by 5–7 questions. Most of the passages have graphs and charts, and most of the questions can be answered based on these data visualizations alone.

The SAT tests some of these same skills in other ways. Students will read science passages and interpret graphs or tables on the Reading section of the SAT. The Math section also includes data analysis questions.

students studying and taking test


ACT Essay

The SAT recently removed the essay portion of the test, so the ACT is now the only test with an essay portion. This is a single essay written in response to a prompt for 40 minutes.

The essay portion is optional (for an additional fee), and the essay grade is not included in the ACT Composite score. 

Honestly, we expect for the ACT to follow the SAT in dropping the essay. In 2022, most of the students we work with are not taking the ACT essay.

pens and school supplies

As the Advanced Placement (AP) tests have become more widely available, colleges are able to gauge a student’s writing ability through the AP English Language or AP English Literature score, along with college essays and high school transcripts.

If your school does not offer AP classes or has a limited number available, highly motivated students can arrange to prepare and take the tests on their own. For one-on-one tutoring support with Ivy-League tutors, reach out to us.

Some top-tier schools (like Princeton) are now also requiring a “graded written paper” to demonstrate a student’s writing abilities. This is a paper submitted for a high school English, social studies, or history class and should be submitted along with the teacher’s grades and comments.


SAT vs ACT test dates

Both the SAT and the ACT are offered throughout the year, but on slightly different schedules:

SAT offeredACT offered
January
FebruaryFeb 11, 2023
MarchMar 11, 2023
AprilApr 15, 2023
MayMay 6, 2023
JuneJun 3, 2023Jun 10, 2023
JulyJul 15, 2023 (no NY)
AugustAug 27, 2022
SeptemberSep 10, 2022
OctoberOct 1, 2022Oct 22, 2022
NovemberNov 5, 2022 (no international)
DecemberDec 3, 2022Dec 10, 2022
source: College Board and ACT

School day testing is offered for both tests, but it depends on the state and on the individual school. Ask your school administration for more details.

Students and families will want to consider how the test schedules fit with other demands on their time, like AP tests in May or particularly busy seasons for extracurriculars. Check out our advice on when to take the SAT and ACT

student with backpack

The SAT costs $60, while the ACT is $63 (or $88 with the Essay section). (Some students are eligible for a fee waiver for both tests.)

Sign up for the SAT through the College Board. Sign up for the ACT through the ACT. Registration deadlines are about one month prior to the test.


Next steps

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the main differences between the SAT and the ACT, the next step is to determine which test better plays to your strengths!

By far the best way to do this is to take a full practice test at home for each test. You can do this for free, with about seven hours of work!

We’ve created a step-by-step guide to self-proctor each test and convert your resulting scores so you can determine which one is higher.

Once you’ve determined which test is the best fit, it’s time to practice!

If you have any questions about how to choose between the SAT and the ACT, or if you need expert help preparing for either of these tests, feel free to reach out. We’ve helped thousands of students improve their scores through SAT workshops or one-on-one tutoring with our Ivy-League tutors.

SAT or ACT? Follow our step-by-step guide to decide

Bonus Material: Step-by-step guide to decide whether you should take the SAT or ACT


Answer key for the SAT data analysis questions above: #13 C, #14 A (SAT 10, Math with calculator)

back to SAT Math vs ACT Math

Emily

Emily graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.