ACT vs. SAT: How to Know Which Test to Take

Discover the key differences between ACT and SAT. From their structure and scoring systems to their pros and cons, we help you decide the right test for your college dreams.

ACT vs SAT Test

Hello there, future university students! As you plan your journey into higher education, you may hear two acronyms whispered with reverence (and perhaps a dash of dread): ACT and SAT.

These standardized tests play a crucial role in college admissions and scholarships across the United States, and understanding their nuances can mean the difference between an acceptance letter and a ‘better luck next time.’


History and Background

First things first, let’s take a trip back in time. In 1926, the College Board, a non-profit organization dedicated to preparing and inspiring students for higher education, introduced the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The SAT’s purpose? To provide a standardized measure of high school achievement and college readiness.

Not to be outdone, the American College Testing (ACT) Program was launched in 1959 by Everett Franklin Lindquist, an education professor. His goal? To create a test that would evaluate a student’s entire high school curriculum rather than just aptitude.

Fast forward to today, both tests have evolved, each with its unique style and approach, but both maintain their primary objective: to assess your readiness for college.

Structure of ACT and SAT

Like a game of chess, the ACT and SAT are built on structure and strategy. 

The ACT comprises four sections – English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional Writing section. Each section evaluates distinct areas of knowledge and skills with a unique set of rules and time limits.

On the other hand, the SAT is organized into two primary sections – Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, along with an optional Essay section. The questions are crafted to test your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, making the test a battle of wit and strategy.

While the ACT questions are often more straightforward, the SAT requires deeper reasoning and interpretation.

For a more in-depth understanding of each exam, check out our comprehensive analysis of both the ACT and SAT.

Key Differences Between the ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT are very different, like two diverse landscapes. Understanding these key differences will equip you for your journey ahead, whether you tread the path of the ACT or the SAT.

Time Allocation Per Section in ACT and SAT

The ticking clock can either be a friend or foe during a test. The SAT allows more time per question than the ACT. This could be a boon if you prefer a measured pace but might be seen as dragging for those who thrive on a quicker tempo.

ACT Duration

2 hours and 55 minutes

SAT Duration

3 hours

Presence of Science Section in ACT and Absence in SAT

The ACT proudly sports a Science section, a unique feature absent in the SAT. This section doesn’t require you to be a mini-Einstein, but it does test your ability to interpret data, analyze experiments, and apply scientific reasoning. For the scientifically inclined, this could be your moment to shine.

SAT's Provision of a Reference Guide for Mathematical Formulas and Diagrams

The SAT has a kind gesture for those with slippery memory—it provides a reference guide for certain mathematical formulas and diagrams. For students who dread memorization, this could be a saving grace.

ACT's Allowance of Calculator Use for All Math Questions

The ACT believes in the power of technology, allowing the use of a calculator for all Math questions. If you’re one who prefers to crunch numbers with a calculator, the ACT may be your best bet.

SAT's Inclusion of a No-Calculator Math Section

The SAT, on the other hand, includes a no-calculator section, challenging your mental arithmetic skills. This could be a boon for math wizards but a bane for those more comfortable with a calculator by their side.

Comparison of the Difficulty Level of ACT and SAT

Difficulty is a subjective term when comparing the ACT and SAT. The ACT is seen as more content-focused, testing knowledge acquired in high school. SAT leans more on reasoning and problem-solving skills. Which test you find more challenging often depends on your learning style and academic strengths.

Scoring System

When it comes to scoring, the SAT and ACT take a slightly different approach. For the SAT, you’ll receive a score ranging from 400 to 1600, combining your Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores, each ranging from 200 to 800.

On the other hand, the ACT gives you a composite score between 1 and 36, which is the average of your scores from the four main sections. Each section is scored separately, also on a 1-36 scale.

Advantages of Taking the ACT or SAT for Different Types of Students

So, with all these differences, which test is better for you? Well, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It largely depends on your strengths, learning style, and test-taking abilities.

The ACT could be the magic wand for students who are:

  • Quick thinkers, breezing through questions with efficiency.
  • Solidly rooted in their high school coursework, ready to apply the knowledge gained.
  • Adept in science, able to showcase their prowess in ACT’s unique Science section.

On the other hand, the SAT might be the perfect canvas for those who:

  • Appreciate a thoughtful pace, using the extra time to weave through problems.
  • Love diving into a sea of texts, emerging with analytical insights.
  • Enjoy untangling issues and using their reasoning skills to find solutions.

The Cons of ACT and SAT

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Each test comes with its pitfalls.

Students heavily reliant on calculators may find the SAT’s no-calculator section like venturing into uncharted territory. It calls for:

  • Quick mental arithmetic sans calculator comfort.
  • Confidence in problem-solving, even without technological aid.

On the other hand, the ACT’s Science section, while appealing to science enthusiasts, demands more than just science know-how. It challenges students to:

  • Quickly dissect and digest complex scientific passages.
  • Interpret data with speed and precision.

Geographic Popularity

Where you live might also play a part in your decision. Traditionally, the SAT has held firm on the coasts, while the ACT has been the test of choice in the Midwest and the South.

However, these lines have blurred over the years as both tests have gained nationwide acceptance.

Deciding Between ACT and SAT

When standing at the crossroads between the ACT and SAT, how do you decide which path to take? Here are some guiding lights to help you make that decision:

  1. Understand Your Learning Style: Are you a fast-paced test taker or prefer a thoughtful pace? Are you more comfortable with straightforward questions, or do you excel in problem-solving and analytical thinking? Understanding your learning style can steer you toward the proper test.
  2. Identify Your Academic Strengths: If science is your forte, the ACT’s science section could be your stage to shine. If you have strong reading comprehension and reasoning skills, the SAT might be your ideal platform.
  3. Consider Your Calculator Dependency: If the thought of math without a calculator makes you break into a cold sweat, you might lean towards the ACT, which allows calculator use throughout its Math section.
  4. Take a Practice Test: Try out a practice test for each. The experience will give you a taste of what to expect and how well you perform on each test.

How Colleges View ACT and SAT Scores During the Admission Process

And what about colleges? Do they prefer one test over the other? The short answer is no. Most U.S. colleges accept both ACT and SAT scores and don’t favor one over the other. They understand that each test offers a different perspective on a student’s abilities and potential.

However, to understand why these scores matter, we need to delve into the rationale behind their importance and how colleges interpret these numbers.

Standardization and Comparability

In a sea of applicants from diverse backgrounds, colleges face the challenge of comparing students with different educational opportunities. ACT and SAT scores provide a standardized measure, a common language, if you will, that colleges can use to compare academic potential across the applicant pool. 

It’s like measuring all items in a grocery store by a uniform unit – say kilograms – to enable comparison.

Predictive Value

Colleges want to know how you’ll perform academically in your freshman year. Your ACT or SAT score is one predictor they use.

Multiple studies have shown a correlation between these scores and freshman-year GPA, making them useful tools for universities in forecasting student success.

Holistic Admissions

However, ACT and SAT scores are not standalone determinants. They are part of a more comprehensive, holistic admissions process that considers various aspects of your application. 

This can include your high school GPA, the rigor of your course selection, your personal essays, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and other distinctive factors.

Test-Optional Policies

It’s also worth noting the growing trend of test-optional policies, especially in light of recent global events. More colleges are giving students the option not to submit test scores.

While this doesn’t diminish the value of solid ACT or SAT scores, it does indicate a broader recognition of the many dimensions that can reflect a student’s potential.

Wrap Up

While ACT or SAT scores play an essential role in the admission process, remember they are just one piece in a multifaceted jigsaw puzzle. 

Colleges are interested in your story as a whole – your potential, your growth, your character – and these scores are just one way of telling that story. 

As you prepare for either test, strive for balance and remember that every application component adds a unique shade to your overall portrait.

Do you need more time or information to decide which test to take? Check out our breakdown of the SAT and ACT exams to help you make an informed decision.

Editorial Disclaimer

The College Compass is reader-supported and committed to maintaining complete editorial independence. All views expressed are solely ours and are not influenced by any external party. We may include affiliate links in the article, which helps us earn a small commission to support our work. We always have a link to the source for any data or information we include. Learn more about our editorial practices.

College Admissions Insights & Advice

Scroll to Top