Which is Right for You: SAT or ACT?

Tyson Schritter

There are many factors that colleges look at when deciding if an applicant is a good fit for acceptance. Colleges look at GPA, class ranking, individual grades, social involvement, and of course, ACT and SAT scores. For many colleges, your SAT or ACT score can make or break your chances of acceptance. So it’s important that you get the best score possible to reflect your knowledge. That means knowing which test will best fit your test-taking abilities, knowledge base, and timing preferences.

Most colleges don’t have a preference between the SAT and ACT, and accept scores from either test. With the introduction of the new SAT in March 2016, the SAT and ACT became more similar, limiting the differences in content between the two tests. That being said, there’s likely still one test that will better reflect your knowledge than the other.


The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600. The ACT is scored from 1 to 36.


The ACT’s math section is considered slightly more rigorous than the SAT’s. The ACT and SAT both test your knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The difference is that the ACT tests your depth of knowledge by not only asking you to demonstrate that you know about a concept, but how to use it. For example: On the SAT you need to know what SohCahToa is, but on the ACT you must use it to solve multiple problems. Another difference is that you can use your calculator on all sections of the ACT while the SAT has one math section that doesn’t allow test takers to use their calculators.

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The ACT can feel like a real-time cruncher as the clock is always ticking, giving students much less time per problem than the SAT. The SAT gives test takers a bit more time to think through problems and ponder. Both tests take approximately 3 hours (without essay) but the ACT has more problems, giving you less time per problem. Here’s a breakdown:

Test Section Time Given Problems Seconds per Problem
ACT English 45 mins 75 problems 36 secs per problem
SAT Writing & Language 35 mins 44 problems 48 secs per problem
ACT Reading 35 mins 40 problems 52.5 secs per problem
SAT Reading 65 mins 52 problems 75 secs per problem
ACT Math 60 mins 60 problems 60 secs per problem
SAT Math 80 mins 58 problems 83 secs per problem

As you can see, the SAT offers more time per problem in all sections than the ACT does.

English, Writing, and Grammar

The skills you need to score well on these sections are the same for both tests. If you study for one, you’ll be prepared for the other. The only difference between the two tests in this section is reading level. On the ACT, all of the passages are about a ninth-grade reading level while the SAT has passages of varying difficulty, ranging from high school level to early college.


For both the SAT and ACT, the essay portion of the test is optional. Your essay score is completely separate from your overall score and most college committees don’t review the essay score when assessing candidates applications. The ACT essay focuses on building an original, supported argument after reading others’ opinions. The SAT essay focuses on analyzing an opinion. The SAT is judging analysis and understanding of the reading while the ACT is looking for original thought.


The ACT has a science section while the SAT doesn’t. But, don’t let this be your deciding factor. The ACT’s science section is poorly named, as it has very little to do with actual science. The science section more accurately deals with the interpretation of charts and graphs.

Test Dates

The SAT is offered seven times a year, while the ACT is offered six times. The tests are usually offered in alternating months, except in June, October, and December, when both tests are offered in the same month.


The costs of the ACT and SAT are comparable, but it’s still helpful to know what you’re in for — especially if you need to register late, change your testing center, or buy additional score reports. Below we’ve broken down the costs associated with each test:

Expense ACT SAT
Test without essay $46.00 $47.50
Test with essay $62.50 $64.50
Late registration $29.50 $29.00
Standby/waitlist testing $53,00 $51.00
International testing (outside U.S. or Canada) $57.50 $38.00-$64.50
Test date or center change $26.00 $29.00
Additional score reports $13.00 each $12.00 each

The best way to truly know which test is better for you is to take a practice test for both the SAT and the ACT.  Compare your scores and whichever one returns the better score and was more comfortable to take, that’s the right test for you.

Now that you’ve read a bit about the similarities and differences between the two tests, use these study tips to score well on the SAT and ACT.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!