15 Key Differences Between SAT and ACT: Which Should You Take?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng


15 Key Differences Between SAT and ACT: Which Should You Take?

Understanding the key differences between SAT and ACT is important for students looking to improve their college application portfolio. This blog dives into the key differences between the two, giving you everything you need to make a smart choice.

Choosing between the SAT and ACT can feel like a big hurdle in the college admission race. Both tests are key players in your application, acting as a universal yardstick for your academic chops.

1. Structure and Timing

The SAT is split into four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (with sections both allowing and not allowing a calculator), and an optional Essay. It aims to measure the essay’s comprehension, analysis, and math skills within 3 hours plus 50 minutes.

The ACT includes five sections: English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning, and an optional Writing section. It introduces a Science section to assess data analysis skills, totaling around 3 hours and 35 minutes with the essay. This setup allows a broad evaluation of a student’s capabilities.

A pencil sitting on a test bubble sheet

2. Content and Skills Tested

The SAT focuses on critical thinking and analyzing texts. It tests how well students understand and interpret written materials and their ability to use language effectively.

On the other hand, the ACT’s knowledge is directly from high school curricula, including a unique section on science. This makes the ACT attractive to students who are good at analyzing scientific data and experiments.

3. Scoring Systems

The SAT offers scores between 400 and 1600, combining results from the Reading/Writing and Math sections. This method shows abilities in verbal and math areas separately.

The ACT gives a composite score from 1 to 36, averaging the four main sections’ scores, with the Writing section scored separately. This approach provides an overview of a student’s general academic performance.

4. Math Section Comparison

SAT’s Math section is divided, allowing a calculator only part of the time. It tests problem-solving and algebra, aiming for a mix of computation and theory.

The ACT’s Math allows calculators throughout and covers more topics, including trigonometry and statistics. This breadth could benefit students with a wider high school math background.

5. Reading and English Sections

The SAT’s Reading section asks students to engage with various texts, focusing on evidence-based questions and vocabulary. The Writing section examines grammar and language use.

The ACT’s English section tests grammar and style more directly, while its Reading section offers passages from different fields with straightforward questions.

6. Science Reasoning

A standout feature of the ACT is its Science Reasoning section. Unlike the SAT, this part doesn’t test your knowledge of science subjects like biology or chemistry. Instead, it examines how well you can analyze scientific data and understand experiments.

You’ll see graphs, summaries, and tables and need to interpret this data, draw conclusions, and think scientifically. This section is ideal for students with critical thinking and data analysis, offering a practical approach to understanding science.

7. Essay Section

The SAT and ACT have optional essay sections but differ in focus. The SAT essay asks you to analyze an author’s argument, looking at how they use evidence and reasoning. It’s about comprehension and analytical writing.

The ACT essay, however, asks you to argue a point of view on a contemporary issue, testing your ability to argue and support your ideas. Your choice might depend on whether you prefer analytical or argumentative writing.

8. Test Availability and Frequency

When examining the key differences between SAT and ACT, consider how often and where they’re offered. Both tests happen several times a year, mainly on Saturdays. However, the exact dates and number of tests can vary, affecting your prep and schedule.

For example, the SAT might have summer dates, while the ACT does not. International students also face different schedules. Choose the test that best fits your calendar and prep time.

9. College Admissions Preferences

Contrary to some beliefs, most colleges don’t prefer one test over the other. Admissions officers view SAT and ACT scores equally, so pick the test that matches your strengths. Some students do better with the SAT’s focus on evidence-based reading, while others excel at the ACT’s straightforward style and science section. The best test for you is the one where you can shine.

10. Preparation and Study Resources

Prep materials for the SAT and ACT are different, possibly influencing your choice. The SAT offers free practice through a partnership with Khan Academy, including full tests and personalized study plans.

The ACT provides resources, like online courses and prep guides, though some cost money. These materials are tailored to each test’s format and content. Choose based on which resources you prefer and how you like to study.

Write Essay

11. Test Anxiety and Timing

Test anxiety affects many students, and the timing of the SAT and ACT can impact their performance. The ACT’s quick pace demands fast thinking, which might stress students with test anxiety.

On the other hand, the SAT gives more time per question, allowing a slower, more thoughtful approach that can help anxious students.

12. Accessibility and Accommodations

Both tests ensure all students, including those with disabilities, can take them. They offer accommodations like extra time or breaks, but the process to request these varies. Students must check each test’s policies early to ensure they get the needed support.

13. Cost and Fee Waivers

Taking the SAT or ACT can be expensive, especially if retaking them. Both offer fee waivers for eligible students, covering the test cost and sometimes offering other benefits. Understanding these financial aspects and fee waiver opportunities is key to minimizing costs.

14. Retaking the Test

Students can retake both tests to improve their scores. However, the approach to improving scores and how colleges view multiple attempts can differ. Considering these factors, including colleges’ policies on score choice and super scoring, is important when deciding to retake a test.

15. Decision Factors

Choosing between the SAT and ACT depends on personal strengths, testing preferences, and college goals. Consider which test aligns with your abilities and preparation style. Taking practice tests for both can help you decide which suits you better, considering the key differences between SAT and ACT.

Students can make a well-informed choice by evaluating these aspects, enhancing their college application process.

Is the ACT harder than the SAT?

Is the ACT tougher than the SAT? This question depends on your strengths and weaknesses. The ACT covers many topics and moves quickly, which can be difficult for some students. On the other hand, the SAT focuses on reasoning and critical thinking, posing a challenge to those less comfortable with such questions.

The ACT includes sections on English, math, reading, science reasoning, and an optional essay, demanding good content knowledge and quick thinking. Unlike anything on the SAT, its science section requires rapidly analyzing data and scientific info.

The math part also covers more ground, including advanced topics requiring a strong understanding of several math areas. The ACT might suit you better if you’re good at handling diverse subjects quickly.

The SAT, however, tests how well you apply knowledge and skills in various contexts. With an optional essay, it assesses your ability to interpret complex texts and solve problems that require deep thinking, divided into reading, writing, and math sections.

At the bookstore, there are several books to help you with studying the ACT test.

The SAT can be tougher for those who prefer direct questions over analytical challenges. Its math sections, split into parts allowing and disallowing calculators, focus on data analysis and algebra. Students with solid reasoning skills may find the SAT more to their liking.

Time management also plays a role in how hard each test feels. The ACT gives you less time per question than the SAT, demanding efficiency and quick responses. This can stress students who need more time to think through their answers.

Whether the ACT or SAT seems harder depends on your test-taking style and academic strengths. Try both tests to see which aligns with your abilities and where you feel most confident.

Consider how you handle different sections, deal with time pressure, and which test style matches your strengths. Choosing between the ACT and SAT isn’t just about finding the easier option but selecting the one that best showcases your skills to colleges.

Does the ACT have the same questions as the SAT?

While the ACT and SAT aim to measure college readiness, they do so in distinct ways, reflecting the key differences between SAT and ACT in their question types and focus areas.

The ACT includes a Science Reasoning section, unique to this test, assessing students’ abilities to interpret data and understand scientific reasoning rather than testing their knowledge in specific science subjects. This section evaluates analytical skills crucial for problem-solving, a vital aspect of college success.

Conversely, the SAT emphasizes evidence-based reading and writing. Its Reading section asks students to closely read passages and support their answers with direct evidence from the text.

The Writing and Language section evaluates grammar and usage, asking students to improve sentences and passages. This focus mirrors college-level analytical thinking and comprehension skills.

In Math, the SAT challenges students with a mix of problem-solving and data analysis questions, including a section without a calculator to test basic math skills.

The ACT Math covers more topics, such as advanced mathematics, and allows a calculator throughout, offering a broader mathematical assessment.

Question styles also differ significantly. The SAT is known for questions that require more critical thinking and application of knowledge in real-world scenarios.

The ACT’s questions tend to be more straightforward, testing a student’s academic skills across English, mathematics, reading, and science in a more traditional format.

The optional essays in both tests call for different writing skills. The SAT essay analyzes an argument, requiring students to evaluate how an argument is constructed.

The ACT essay asks students to take a stand on an issue, testing their ability to compose a coherent argument.

These distinctions highlight the key differences between the SAT and ACT, demonstrating how each test caters to different skill sets. Understanding these differences can help students choose the test that best aligns with their abilities and academic goals, ensuring they can showcase their strengths effectively.

Impact on College Admissions

Choosing between the SAT and ACT is critical in your college application process. Both tests are important to colleges as they assess your readiness for college-level work. Understanding the key differences between the SAT and the ACT is crucial for picking the test that best matches your skills and shows your potential to colleges.

College Application Form

Highlighting Your Strengths

Colleges want students who will succeed in their academic environment. Standardized test scores like the SAT and ACT help colleges compare applicants on a common scale. If you’re better at math and science, the ACT might be a better fit because it includes a science section and covers more math topics.

If you’re stronger in reading and analysis, the SAT could be more advantageous due to its focus on evidence-based reading and interpreting data.

Choosing Strategically

The decision between the SAT and ACT should be based on which test aligns with your academic strengths. This choice can significantly impact how colleges view your application. Some students might find the ACT’s faster pace and broader content range more to their liking, while others might prefer the SAT’s emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving.

Research College Preferences

Most colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, but it’s wise to check if your preferred colleges lean towards one. Although rare, some programs may also ask for SAT Subject Tests. Knowing the key differences between SAT and ACT helps align your test choice with college expectations.

The Whole Picture

Colleges use a holistic approach in admissions, considering your entire application, not just test scores. Your choice between SAT and ACT should complement your overall application narrative, showcasing your strengths and achievements in the best light.

Making the Right Choice

Understanding the key differences between SAT and ACT is key to making an informed choice. This decision affects how you prepare for the test and position yourself in the competitive college admissions landscape. Choose the test that lets you shine and supports your college admission goals.

Strategies for Success on Each Test

Scoring high on the SAT or ACT is about smart preparation and understanding each test’s unique challenges. Here’s how to tailor your study approach to excel in both exams.

SAT Strategies

  • Understand the Format: Know the SAT’s layout, focusing on reading, writing, and math sections. Grasp the question types you’ll face in each section.
  • Improve Vocabulary Contextually: The SAT’s vocabulary through the context of passages. Enhance your comprehension by practicing with diverse texts and learning to deduce meanings of words through their use in sentences.
  • Focus on Evidence-Based Reading: Learn to pinpoint parts of texts that back your answers, a vital skill for the reading section.
  • Strengthen Math Skills: The SAT covers algebra, data analysis, and advanced math. Work on these areas and practice solving problems without a calculator.
  • Analytical Writing: For the essay, practice dissecting arguments and writing clear, analytical responses within the time limit.
  • Manage Your Time: Practice full-length tests under timed conditions to get used to pacing yourself across different sections.

exam tips for students

ACT Strategies

  • Adjust to the Pace: The ACT demands quick thinking, especially in its Science and Reading sections. Time your practice to improve speed and accuracy.
  • Tackle the Science Section: Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a science section focused on interpreting data and understanding experiments. Practice these skills rather than rote memorization.
  • Broaden Math Preparation: The ACT includes wider math topics like trigonometry. Ensure you’re comfortable with high school math and practice efficient calculator use.
  • Brush Up on English Skills: The ACT English section tests your knowledge of grammar and style. Review grammar rules and practice editing for clarity.
  • Reading Section Strategy: Practice quickly identifying the main ideas in the ACT Reading section. Work on inference and understanding the author’s purpose.
  • Writing Section Prep: If opting for ACT Writing, practice structuring essays that present your stance on issues supported by logical reasoning.
  • Comprehensive Practice: Use official practice tests to familiarize yourself with both tests’ formats. Simulate real test conditions to build endurance for the actual day.

You can markedly enhance your scores by streamlining your study tactics for the SAT and ACT, focusing on each test’s demands, and engaging in consistent practice.

Remember, understanding the key differences between SAT and ACT and preparing accordingly are crucial steps to success.

Choosing the Right Test for You

Deciding between the SAT and ACT is a significant step in your college admission journey. It’s about choosing a platform where you can best showcase your academic skills. Here’s a streamlined approach to help you make this crucial decision.

Assess Your Skills

Begin by evaluating your academic strengths. Are you better at math and science or at reading and writing? If you’re good at critical thinking and analyzing texts, the SAT might suit you better because it focuses on these skills.

If you excel in science and prefer straightforward questions, consider the ACT, which includes a science section and direct questions.

Try Both Tests

Practicing both tests is vital. It gives you a feel for each test’s format and helps you understand which one you prefer. Notice how you handle the time constraints of each test. The ACT is known for its quicker pace, while the SAT gives you more time for each question.

Evaluate the Formats

Think about which test format you prefer. Some students might like the SAT’s setup, which allows for more in-depth thinking. Others might prefer the ACT’s direct approach and the science section. Your comfort with the test format can greatly affect your performance.

Understand the Scoring

Knowing how each test is scored can also influence your choice. The ACT gives you a composite score, which might be beneficial if you’re consistently strong across subjects.

The SAT might be better if you want to highlight specific strengths, thanks to its separate scoring for different sections.

Check College Requirements

Look into what your target colleges prefer. Most accept both tests equally, but some might have specific preferences. This information can ensure your choice aligns with your college application strategy.

Get Advice

Talk to teachers, counselors, or tutors who know your academic abilities. Their advice can guide you towards the test that matches your skills and study habits.

mentor explaining new online project to newly graduate students

Trust Yourself

After you’ve prepared and considered all factors, trust your judgment. Pick the test to achieve the best scores, showing colleges your true potential.


Breaking down the key differences between SAT and ACT is a foundational step in your college preparation journey. By assessing your strengths, understanding the structure and content of each test, and strategically preparing, you can choose the test that best suits your college aspirations.

Remember, the goal is to showcase your academic potential in the best light, paving the way for your future success.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up now to receive insights on
how to navigate the college admissions process.