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Differences Between SAT, ACT And PSAT

Aug 20, 2021

The American education system offers a variety of tests for students to begin their college admission process. Exams like the ACT, SAT, and PSAT help them score admission to their desired college or university and begin their career journey. Here is a brief overview and the differences between SAT, ACT and PSAT.

What is the ACT?

The American College Testing (ACT) is an entrance exam aimed to assess college readiness. The score on the ACT helps colleges and universities determine if the test taker has sufficient knowledge to perform well in school. Schools use it to gauge a student’s knowledge and to measure it up against competitors to decide who to admit.


The ACT has four main sections English, Reading, Math and Science. An optional section includes an ‘Essay’ that the student can choose to showcase their writing abilities to the college. This section, though optional, is integral to the overall score especially when the student’s area of interest is literature or creative writing.

Without attempting this section, students can’t get admission to these fields. ACT is usually taken during the spring of junior year in high school or the fall of senior year. If a student takes the ACT in junior year and isn’t happy with the score, they can take it again in the senior year with better ACT test preparation.


What is the PSAT and how is it different from SAT?

SAT is Scholastic Assessment Test, formerly known as Scholastic Aptitude Test and is used to determine a student’s readiness for higher education. It takes 3 hours with the lowest possible score on each section being 200 and the highest being 800. Overall, the final score ranges from 400 to 1600.

The P in PSAT refers to ‘practice’ and as the terms suggest, PSAT is a practise test meant to prepare you for the SAT. Though it’s not an important part of your college application, it’s just a way to familiarize yourself with the questions and the test pattern before appearing for the SAT. Additionally, it’s a National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test where best-performing students receive money for college by scoring a high score.


Here’s how PSAT differs from the SAT:

1. Purpose

While SAT is a common requirement for college admissions, PSAT is its precursor and not as important as the former. It has no impact on admission chances since the score doesn’t reflect on college applications. However, a low SAT score significantly impacts your chances of getting into college.

2. Score range

The PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520, while the SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600. The PSAT score is meant to directly predict your SAT score. There’s a difference in the score ranges because the PSAT is less challenging to accommodate a lower grade level and is taken as a preparation, while SAT is the real deal.


3. Timing

The SAT is slightly longer and has more questions, but the time allotted for a question in both the tests is roughly the same.

4. Number of sections

While both the tests have 4 main sections (Reading, Writing, Math No Calc, Math Calc), the SAT has an optional ‘Essay’ section like the ACT. Opting for the additional section gives you an added 50 minutes. The Essay is one section PSAT doesn’t prepare you for.


Since it’s a preparation test, it’s always a good idea to take the PSAT before taking the SAT.

How are the SAT and ACT different?

1. Sections

Sections on the SAT are Reading, Math, Writing & Language and those on the ACT are English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.


2. Content

Reading, math, and grammar use are the main content covered on the SAT, and on the ACT, the main sections covered are grammar, math, reading, science, and writing.

3. Test style

The questions are evidence-based and context-based to focus on real-world situations on the SAT, while there are longer and more straightforward questions on the ACT.


4. Difficulty level

While the difficulty level for questions increases as the test progresses on the SAT, it’s random on the ACT.

What are the sections on ACT, SAT & PSAT?

Test Section Time # of Questions Time per Question 
PSAT Reading 60 minutes 48 75 seconds 
Writing 35 minutes 44 48 seconds 
Math No Calc 25 minutes 17 88 seconds 
Math Calc 45 minutes 31 87 seconds 
SAT Reading 65 minutes 52 75 seconds 
Writing 35 minutes 44 48 seconds 
Math No Calc 25 minutes 20 75 seconds 
Math Calc 55 minutes 38 87 seconds 
Essay (optional) 50 minutes 1 50 minutes 
ACT English 45 minutes 75 36 seconds 
Math 60 minutes 60 60 seconds 
Reading 35 minutes 40 52 seconds 
Science 35 minutes 40 52 seconds 
Writing (optional) 40 minutes 1 40 minutes 

Which one should you take?

It’s always preferred to take the PSAT to understand college entrance exams and get a scholarship by proving their academic skills. Since colleges view ACT and SAT in similar ways, students can use scores for either test.

However, the subjects tested on these tests are different, amidst PSAT vs SAT vs ACT, it’s a good idea to choose one that’s more aligned to your study area.

Frequently Asked Questions 

1. Is the ACT or SAT harder? 

A. College admissions and merit-based scholarship awards are based on ACT and SAT scores. Most colleges do not prefer one test over another. Neither the SAT nor the ACT is harder. 

2. Which colleges prefer SAT or ACT?

A. There isn’t a preference. One popular misconception is that elite colleges prefer the SAT over the ACT. In reality, every college and university that requires standardized testing accept BOTH the ACT and the SAT. And college admissions officers have stated quite clearly that they do not prefer one test over the other. 

3. Are ACT and SAT math the same?

A. SAT and ACT Math Fundamentals Though the ACT Math section and the SAT Math section share many similarities, there are significant differences in the structure, content, and timing of each test. These distinctions are what lead many people to prefer one math test over the other. 

4. Why is the ACT better than the SAT?

A. The ACT is a much less expensive alternative to the SAT, but it is also quite different in many ways. It is regarded as more of an achievement test because it assesses how much you have learned in high school rather than how well you can reason, as the SAT does. 



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