SAT vs ACT: Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

Find out which college admissions test — the SAT or ACT — makes the most sense for you to take when you're applying to college.

SAT vs ACT: Should I Take the SAT or ACT?
Tiffany Chang

The majority of high school students and parents start their college prep process by comparing the ACT and SAT tests. Unfortunately, in many ways, comparing the ACT to the SAT is like comparing apples to oranges. There are both significant similarities and notable differences. The good news is that both tests are broadly accepted for college admissions and scholarship acceptance by most institutions of higher education all over the United States. .

Since both of these college-prep tests are widely respected and accepted by most U.S. colleges and universities, it’s essential to delve into what the SATs and ACTs are in detail, compare the similarities and differences, and then draw whatever conclusions are arrived at on the subject of whether you should take the SAT, the ACT, or both. Read on for this full breakdown of the SAT versus ACT. 

A Broad Look at the Difference Between SAT and ACT

One of the first differences between ACT and SAT that stands out is that they are owned and administered by different organizations. The ACT test is owned by ACT, Inc., an organization based in Iowa, founded in 1959. ACT, Inc. is a nonprofit organization and, besides administering the ACT test, it also leads projects such as the PreACT and “The Official ACT Prep Guide” publication, among other programs.

The SAT test, by contrast, is owned and managed by the College Board, also a nonprofit organization, originally founded in 1899 by a group of select northeastern colleges and universities. College Board also owns and manages other exams like the PSAT, CLEP, and AP exams, as well as additional college admissions resources.

Cost Comparison of the ACT vs SAT

Like everything in this country, there is a cost attached to taking these college-prep tests. The good news is the costs of the ACT versus the SAT are minimal in their differences. Here’s a breakdown of the various costs associated with the ACT and SAT tests:

ACT vs SAT Cost Comparison

Type of Fee

ACT

SAT

Registration (without Essay)

$55

$52

Registration (with Essay)

$70

$68

Test Option Change Fee (from Essay to No Essay or vice versa)

$0 from Writing to No Writing (Writing fee refundable upon request), $15 from No Essay to Essay

$0 from Essay to No Essay, $16 from No Essay to Essay

Late Registration

$35

$30

Change Fee (Includes Test Date or Test Center changes)

$35

$30

Waitlist/Standby Fee (Charged only if admitted to the test center on test day)

$56

$53

First 4 Score Reports

$0

$0

Additional Score Reports

$13 each

$12 each

As you can see, there’s very little significant variation in the costs of taking the ACT test versus the SAT test. Therefore, you shouldn’t consider the cost of taking these tests as a criteria for deciding which one to take.

Differences Between SAT and ACT by State

One of the more marked differences between ACT and SAT are their level of popularity depending on which state the test-taker resides in. This is often due to the fact that certain school districts tend to place more emphasis on one college-prep test over the other. Geographically speaking, in general, the ACT test is more popular in the U.S. Midwest, Southwest, and the Deep South. The SAT test, on the other hand, is more popular among test-takers on the West Coast, the Northeast, Great Lakes region, as well as Texas, Georgia, and Florida. All that said, both the ACT and SAT tests are available in all U.S. states.

Geographic breakdown of the popularity of ACT vs. SAT test-taking in the U.S.

Interestingly, the state breakdown of SAT versus ACT test-taking displays significant correspondence with recent presidential election results. Is it merely correlation or causality? There’s probably no real answer to this, but it is an intriguing pattern.

Differences in ACT vs SAT Scores 

Both college-prep tests naturally have score ranges (how else would one be able to tell how well they did?). However, the score numbers and score ranges for the two different tests are quite divergent, making it difficult at first glance to understand how a score on one test corresponds to the score on the other. 

The SAT scores tests based on a scoring range of 400 to 1600. A score of 400 represents getting the lowest score, 200, on both the Reading section and the Math section; a score of 1600 represents getting the highest score, 800, on both the Reading and Math section. For the ACT, the scoring range runs from 1 to 36, with 36 being the best. Another thing to note is that the ACT scores are called the ACT Composite Score, while the SAT scores are called the SAT Total Score. Although scores of the ACT versus SAT test are not completely comparable, there are ways to get a general idea of how a score on one test corresponds to the score on the other test. 

Here’s a look at an approximate conversion chart of ACT versus SAT scores: 

ACT vs SAT Scores: Conversion Chart

ACT Composite Score

SAT Total Score Range

36

1570-1600

35

1530-1560

34

1490-1520

33

1450-1480

32

1420-1440

31

1390-1410

30

1360-1380

29

1330-1350

28

1300-1320

27

1260-1290

26

1230-1250

25

1200-1220

24

1160-1190

23

1130-1150

22

1100-1120

21

1060-1090

20

1030-1050

19

990-1020

18

960-980

17

920-950

16

880-910

15

830-870

14

780-820

13

730-770

12

690-720

11

650-680

10

620-640

9

590-610

According to College Board, the average SAT score for high school graduates of 2021 was 1060. For the ACT, the average composite score in 2021 was 20.7.  Both of these average scores almost exactly align with each other in the conversion table, with an ACT composite score of 21 equating roughly to 1060-1090.

Another important difference between the ACT and the SAT with their respective scoring is that, in the SAT test, each section has a score range of 200 to 800. With the ACT test, each section actually has a score range of 1 to 36, like the ACT test’s overall composite score range of 1 to 36; the exception to this is the optional writing section on the ACT, which has a score range of 2 to 12.

The reason the ACT test calls its overall score a “composite” score is because your final score is the average of the scores for each section. On the SAT test, by contrast, your overall score is simply the sum of the scores you got for each section.

ACT Compared to SAT Tests

In the table below you’ll be able to see the differences between ACT and SAT tests. In many ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, both consisting of reading passages and a mathematics section. And if you forgo the optional essay portion of the ACT, then even the length of the tests are similar: 3 hours for the SAT and 2 hours and 55 minutes for the ACT.

ACT Compared to SAT Tests

Perhaps the most notable difference between the ACT and the SAT is the presence of a Science section in the ACT. Subjects like science are something reserved for the SAT II series of tests, such as the Biology SAT II, Chemistry SAT II, or Physics SAT II. Another key difference between the ACT and the SAT is the optional written essay portion of the ACT. The SAT, in fact, used to have an essay writing section for a time before jettisoning it (when?).

More Detailed Look at the Difference Between SAT and ACT

Besides some of the broad differences between ACT and SAT structure and sections, there are more nuanced, detailed differences within the tests. For example, while both tests have a Math section, the rules and time allowed is different. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the difference between SAT and ACT:

Detailed Breakdown of the Difference Between SAT and ACT

Section

ACT

SAT

Reading

40 questions, 35 minutes
(53 seconds per question)

52 questions, 65 minutes
(75 seconds per question)

Writing and Language/English

75 questions, 45 minutes
(36 seconds per question)

44 questions, 35 minutes
(48 seconds per question)

Math (Calculator Permitted)

60 questions, 60 minutes
(60 seconds per question)

38 questions, 55 minutes
(87 seconds per question)

Math (No Calculator)

20 questions, 25 minutes
(75 seconds per question)

Science

40 questions, 35 minutes
(53 seconds per question)

Essay (Optional)

1 prompt, 40 minutes

TOTAL

215 questions plus 1 essay
2 hours 55 minutes without essay
3 hours 35 minutes with essay

154 questions, 3 hours

If you notice from the table, in general, you get more time per question with the SATs versus the ACTs. There are also more questions overall on the ACT, with 215 questions versus 154 questions. If you’re deciding between taking the ACT versus the SAT purely based on quantitative reasons, then it would seem the SAT is the way to go. But such factors shouldn’t be the only ones you should consider when deciding on which test to take.

ACT vs SAT: The Math Section

Another critical difference between SAT and ACT tests is that the SAT features a Math section in which a calculator is not allowed. The SAT test has two Math sections; the one where a calculator is allowed has more questions and more time allotted to the test-taker to complete it; the no-calculator Math section comes before the calculator-allowed Math section and features fewer questions and less time to complete. Fortunately for ACT test-takers, the entire ACT Math section permits calculator use. Thus, this is one clear area where the ACT could be better than taking the SAT if your math skills are wanting.

While the SAT test has a no-calculator Math section, it does have one advantage over the ACT in terms of its mathematics portion: With the SAT, you'll get a reference guide at the beginning of both Math sections, which you can use during the exam. This reference sheet contains a variety of math formulas, though mainly for geometry problems. The ACT test does not do this. Another area of difference between SAT and ACT math sections is that, while both put a significant emphasis on algebra, the ACT also strongly focuses on higher-level math concepts, like logarithms, trigonometry, and matrices. Though higher-level than SAT math questions, remember, you’re always permitted to use your calculator throughout the ACT Math section.

ACT vs SAT: The Reading Section

Although both the ACT and SAT tests have Reading sections, there are some notable differences between ACT and SAT on this point. With the Reading section on the SAT, questions typically appear in chronological order, corresponding to the order in which ideas are conveyed in the reading passage you’re assessing. By contrast, with the ACT Reading section, the questions are not necessarily in chronological order, often applying to any portion of the reading passage. If you are used to tests that present reading comprehension questions in chronological order, then this aspect of the SAT may be easier for you than taking the ACT.

A further difference between SAT and ACT reading sections concerns the content of the reading passages. The ACT usually features reading passages that have been written in recent years and are nearly contemporary. With the SAT reading section, on the other hand, many of the reading passages are drawn from older sources, oftentimes from before or during the early 20th century. Because SAT reading passages can be older and even historical documents, they may be a bit tougher to comprehend. Thus, in this regard, some test-takers who are weaker on their reading comprehension capabilities may lean towards taking the ACT.

ACT vs SAT: The Essay Section

For a period of time, both the SAT and ACT tests included an optional essay section. In this section, you would write an original essay based on a passage or prompt provided. On the SAT, this section actually added another scoring category, pushing up the total SAT score possible to 2400 (the author of this article was one of the students who experienced this temporary period in SAT history). Eventually, however, the SAT dropped the optional essay section in summer 2021. The ACT test, however, still retains the optional essay section. So, if you’re a fan of writing and a good writer, then taking the ACT may be the move here.

ACT vs SAT: The Science Section

Perhaps the most unique difference between SAT and ACT tests is that the ACT includes a dedicated Science section. The ACT’s Science section counts for one-fourth of your composite ACT score. This is great news for those students who are avid fans of or naturals when it comes to science. In order to perform well on the Science section, test-takers need to know how to interpret experimental data and hypotheses and how to analyze scientific models.

Although the SAT test doesn’t feature a distinct Science section, a good deal of its questions reference scientific experiments and thus also require a strong understanding of how to decipher scientific data. These kinds of questions can occur in the Reading section when a reading passage covers a scientific subject. Otherwise, the main place you’ll be tested on science by the SAT is by taking one of the SAT II tests whose subjects are biology, chemistry, or physics, for example.

Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

Now we come down to the crucial question: should I take the SAT or ACT? As previously mentioned, comparing the SAT test to the ACT test is like comparing apples to oranges. However, depending on a student’s area of strengths and weaknesses, taking one test over the other could make a lot of sense. And, of course, you can always take both tests. Therefore, there is no real answer to the question: is the SAT or ACT easier?

Reasons You May Want to Take the ACT

The ACT test may be the move if your science skills are especially strong. The ACT provides science lovers the ability to display their analytical aptitude. If you earn a high score on the Science section of the ACT, it will probably provide a recognizable boost to your overall composite ACT score.

If you aren’t confident about your math skills, then you may want to lean towards taking the ACT test. The ACT Math section counts for only one quarter of your final score, while allowing you to use a calculator for all questions in the section. What’s more, if you don't perform too well on the Math section, your Math score typically won't influence your final ACT score as severely as it could on the SAT test.

Lastly, if you’re a wordsmith, you may want to take the ACT test to get a chance at doing the optional essay section. Thus, if you're a gifted writer and think the essay section could buttress your college application, then taking the ACT test with its essay section could be a good route to go.

Reasons You May Want to Take the SAT

As mentioned above, with the SAT test, you are allotted more time per question compared to the ACT. In fact, all sections on the SAT test offer more time per question than the ACT test. This makes the SAT conducive to test-takers that tend to think things out more gradually and want more time to in case you get caught up on a question.

Another way to answer the question, should I take the SAT or ACT, is if you are confident with your math skills. Considering the SAT test has a no-calculator Math section, test-takers need to be confident with their abilities to solve math problems the old fashion way, by writing out all the steps involved in the computations. Recall that the SAT Math section accounts for half of your overall SAT score, so if you’re self-assured in your math abilities, then taking the SAT instead of the ACT could be advisable for you.

And, of course, there is the lack of a Science section on the SAT test. If you are not confident in or a natural at science, then you may want to avoid taking the ACT. By having no Science section on the SAT, you won’t have to fret about a Science section potentially bringing down your overall SAT score.

The Bottom Line on the Difference Between SAT and ACT

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? Or is the SAT easier than the ACT? Again, there is no straightforward answer to these questions. The answer has much more to do with the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences of the individual student test-taker. One of the advantages of the SAT test is that, overall, you have more time per question versus the ACT. However, the no-calculator Math section of the SAT may turn off many test-takers, who may then prefer the ACT, especially if they are good writers and want to show off their abilities in the optional essay section. Either way, the good news is that you can take both college-prep tests and submit whichever test you scored better on. However, take note, that if you want to take both tests, that entails two separate regimes of test preparation and study since the ACT and SAT do have different sections and different emphases within sections.