SAT and ACT are the most widely accepted tests for admissions into top college universities in the U.S. Are you also one of the many students who is having an SAT vs ACT debate most of the time in the back of your mind? This SAT vs ACT extensive analysis will look at the similarities and differences, concluding with the tips to decide and ace the exam. Because the first step in taking the decision is to know the difference.

ACT vs SAT

Similarities

What makes this debate all the way more difficult is some striking similarities between both the tests. First, let us go through the similarities between SAT and ACT and move through the differences for you to make the right and informed choice.

  • SAT and ACT are both nationally recognized standardized tests and both are used by colleges in the admission decisions and in awarding students merit-based scholarships.
  • Most colleges do not give preference to either of the test scores, both ACT and SAT scores are accepted and considered by the college.
  • SAT and ACT serve the same goal of measuring applicants’ proficiencies in various skills such as problem-solving, reading comprehension, etc. which thereby serve the purpose of testing applicants’ readiness for college.
  • SAT and ACT both extensively cover the same topics, and sections and follow a more or less similar structure that helps the difficulty levels of both the exams to be approximately similar.
  • There is no penalization for incorrect answers in both tests.
  • The colleges don’t consider any of the test scores as a priority as compared to the application, both the SAT and ACT scores are accompanied by college application for the final considerations.
  • The SAT and ACT both offer you the choice to decide which set(s) of scores to be submitted to the colleges.

Differences

Despite having the same aim, similar structure, and serving the same purpose, there are some key differences that are imperative to be emphasized in this SAT vs ACT analysis. These key differences will help you enormously in deciding which test suits your abilities the best.

  • Test Structure – The test structure will help you understand the sections covered and opt for the one that you know you can ace. The below comparison chart will also assist you to decide on the basis of time per question and time per section along with the content covered in each of the tests so that you can choose the best fit-out of the two for you.
  SAT ACT
Sections (In Order)
  1. Reading
  2. Writing and Language
  3. Math (No Calculator)
  4. Math (Calculator)
  1. English
  2. Math
  3. Reading
  4. Science
  5. Essay (Optional)

 

No. Of Questions Total: 154 Questions

Reading: 52

Writing & Language: 44

Math (No Calculator): 20

Math (Calculator): 38

 

Total: 215 Questions

English: 75

Math: 60

Reading: 40

Science: 40

Writing (optional): 1 essay

Time Per Section Reading: 65 mins

Writing and Language: 35 mins

Math (No Calculator): 25 mins

Math (Calculator): 55 mins

English: 45 mins

Math: 60 mins

Reading: 35 mins

Science: 35 mins

Essay (optional): 40 mins

Time Per Question Reading: 75 sec/question

Writing: 48 sec/question

Math:

75 sec/question (no calculator)

87 sec/question (calculator)

Reading: 53 sec/question

English: 36 sec/question

Math: 60 sec/question

Science: 53 sec/question

Content Covered The SAT paper has 5 reading passages and math covers Arithmetics, Algebra I, and II along with geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis. The use of a calculator is prohibited in 1 section of math questions. The ACT paper has 4 reading passages along with the optional essay that helps you evaluate and analyze the complex issues. Math covers Arithmetics, Algebra I, and II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Probability, and Statistics. The calculator can be used in all math questions. The additional science section tests the applicant’s critical thinking skills.
  • Timing

If time management plays a huge role for you in deciding the exam, the total time for the SAT test is 3 hours and for ACT is 2 hours 55 minutes without the optional essay and 3 hours 40 minutes if you opt to take the essay. You can refer to the table above to see the timing breakout in context with time per section and time per question in each of the parts if you were to spend the same amount of time on each of the questions of a particular section.

  • When Can You Take The Test
    The test dates also are a major deciding factor in context to whether SAT or ACT is more feasible for you. Both the ACT and SATs are conducted on Saturdays. For U.S. students, the test is offered 7 times a year and for International students, the test dates are lesser. SAT is offered 7 times a year in March or April, May, June, August, October, November, and December. ACT is also offered 7 times a year in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. The dates for both the test can vary depending on situations, states, and whether you are taking the test in U.S. or Internationally. 
  • Costs
    The approximate cost for SAT is $52 and 4 score reports will be sent to your preferred colleges and universities. The changes may vary for international students and other services like receiving your scores via phone. The approximate cost for ACT is $55 without the essay and $70 with the essay. Score reports will be sent to your current high school as well as 4 preferred colleges and universities.

Note: Additional charges may apply for international students and additional services.

  • Registration Process and Deadlines
    The registration for both ACT and SAT can be done online and additional charges are incurred for late registration, international students, change in date or location, or any other update. The documents you require for registration for the ACT and SAT are payment details like credit card details, headshot photos, and school and university codes for the school and colleges you wish to apply for. The registration deadline for ACT is about a month before the actual test date and the late registration deadline is generally 2 weeks before the test date. The registration deadline for SAT is also about a month before the test date and the late registration deadline is usually 1 week before the test date. There is no late registration deadline for International students.
  • Scoring

The scoring patterns are one of the most important deciding factors with respect to which test you should aim for.
SAT –
The SAT score range is 400 – 1600. Each section that is the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Sections has a scale range of 200 – 800. The scores from each section are combined to get a composite (total) score. The college board has called off the optional essay writing from 2021.

You receive your SAT scores within 2-3 weeks of the test date. Your SAT score report displays the Composite Score, each section score along with cross-section scores and subscores analyzed from various questions you answered in the test. Your SAT score also mentions your percentile according to the composite and section scores.

ACT – The score range for ACT is 1 – 36. Each section has a scale range of 1 – 36 and the composite (total) score is the average score of all four sections. The optional essay is scored on a scale of 2 – 12 and isn’t considered in the final score.
You receive your ACT scores within 2 weeks of the test date. ACT also provides an interactive version of the score report like SAT that mentions scores of each section and composite score along with English Language Acquisition (ELA score) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM score).

The cross-section and sub-scores provided for both the tests help measure the applicant’s ability in various proficiencies.

The college board and ACT also provide a conversion chart of the SAT and ACT scores. According to the recent records, the average SAT score and ACT score of high school graduates have been 1051 and 20.6 respectively.

Conversion Table:

SAT SCORE ACT EQUIVALENT
1600-1570 36
1560-1530 35
1520-1490 34
1480-1450 33
1440-1420 32
1410-1390 31
1380-1360 30
1350-1330 29
1320-1300 28
1290-1260 27
1250-1230 26
1220-1200 25
1190-1160 24
1150-1130 23
1120-1100 22
1090-1060 21
1050-1030 20
1020-990 19
980-960 18
950-920 17
910-880 16
870-830 15
820-780 14
770-730 13
720-690 12
680-650 11
640-620 10
610-590 9
  • Test Style

The questions on SAT are more context-based focusing on real-world situations and step-by-step problem-solving whereas the ACT questions are more straightforward, long but easy to understand.

  • Math Section

The math section of SAT has 20 questions in which the use of a calculator is prohibited. In the ACT there is no restriction on calculator use in any of the questions. However, the no calculator questions in SAT are easier to solve and reasoning-based than arithmetic heavy.

Both the SAT and ACT lay a heavy emphasis on Algebra for the math section while geometry and trigonometry are less focused on SAT as compared to ACT. ACT also covers math concepts like matrices, the graphs of trigonometry functions, and logarithms which are absent in SAT completely.

The SAT provides you with a diagram of 12 geometry formulas and three laws before their math subsection, however, ACT does not provide any formulas on the day so for ACT you need to spend extra time in preparation mugging all the formulas up.

  • Reading Section

For the reading section, the SAT focuses on evidence-support questions and the questions are asked in chronological order with regard to the passage. The evidence-support questions are either absent or less in the ACT and the questions of the passages do not follow the chronological order.

  • Writing Section

The ACT English questions are analyzed in three categories namely knowledge of the language, production of writing, and conventions of standard English. The SAT writing and language section focuses on 5 analysis categories namely words in context, standard English conventions, command of evidence, expression of ideas, and analysis in history/social studies and science.

  • Science Section

The ACT has an entire section devoted to science while the SAT has no separate section devoted to science; however, SAT does test you on your science knowledge through questions as the SAT score report has a cross-section score namely Analysis in science. Thus, since ACT has an entire section devoted to science, ACT focuses on science more.

The Final Call – ACT vs SAT?

So after going through all the similarities and differences of SAT and ACT, you know that there is no easier option since both the tests serve the same purpose and have the same level. Students generally take both the tests by their junior year to analyze and retake the preferred one. The final call is yours to take but here are some tips and considerations you can keep in mind before deciding on SAT or ACT.

  • The best way to finalize one is to take timed full-length practice tests to help you determine the best fit. Since the structure is very similar, the time pressure and type of questions you find challenging will aid you in taking the final call.
  • If you are more comfortable with Math, you have a better scope in SAT and if your comfort levels align more with English you should go for the ACT.
  • Consider if you are comfortable with the science reasoning skills along with time management skills and your ability to solve math without using the calculator will also help you take a final call.
  • You can also consider the dates of the test if you are an international test taker and go for the one that is more feasible for you.
  • The SAT vs ACT quiz- Taking this SAT vs ACT quiz will make the decision-making process easier for you. If most of your answers align with ‘Agree’ then SAT is the right fit for you and if they align with ‘Disagree’ then your fit falls more towards ACT. If it is equal parts agree and disagree, then you can opt for both or any of the two.
Statement Agree Disagree
I have difficulty with geometry and trigonometry.
I can solve math problems without a calculator easily.
Recalling math formulas is a task for me.
I can easily analyze something but face difficulty in giving my opinion.
I usually do pretty well on math tests.
Science is not my thing.
Tight time constraints stress me out.
I can find evidence with ease to back up my answers.
I like coming up with my answers to math questions.
Chronologically arranged questions are easier to follow.
  • You should also consider the state’s testing requirements as some states require ACT and some others prefer SAT.

Fulfilling The Real Aim

Whether you take the final call for the ACT or SAT, the real aim is to get a score that proves your college readiness. So, set your test goals right from the start, know the differences and the evaluation process, learn from the experience of test-takers, have a consistent prep plan and rich resources, and analyze your performances to ace the test you opt for.