ACT vs. SAT: Which Should You Take?

Many students struggle to choose between the SAT and ACT. Discover the two exams' biggest differences and get tips on which one you should take.

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by Hannah Muniz

Updated August 15, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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ACT vs. SAT: Which Should You Take?
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"Should I take the SAT or ACT?" — it's a common question many high school students ask themselves as they inch closer to college application season.

All four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. that use standardized test scores for admission purposes accept both SAT and ACT scores. The two exams test similar subjects, including reading comprehension, math, and English grammar.

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Ready to start your journey?

Unless you're applying only to test-optional colleges, you'll likely need to take the SAT or ACT. But which exam should you choose?

To help you answer this question, we've provided an overview of the 13 biggest differences between the ACT and SAT, along with advice on how to figure out which test may be a better fit for you.

13 Major Differences Between the ACT and SAT

Although the SAT and ACT cover many of the same subjects and follow similar formats, the two exams have some key differences to look out for.

1. Timing and Number of Questions

The SAT and ACT both take around three hours to complete; however, exam has different sections and time limits, with some sections offering more time per question than others.

Here's an overview of the timing differences on the two tests:

Section SAT ACT
Reading 52 questions, 65 minutes
(75 seconds/question)
40 questions, 35 minutes
(53 seconds/question)
Writing and Language / English 44 questions, 35 minutes
(48 seconds/question)
75 questions, 45 minutes
(36 seconds/question)
Math (Calculator Permitted) 38 questions, 55 minutes
(87 seconds/question)
60 questions, 60 minutes
(60 seconds/question)
Math (No Calculator) 20 questions, 25 minutes
(75 seconds/question)
Science 40 questions, 35 minutes
(53 seconds/question)
Essay (Optional) 1 prompt, 40 minutes
TOTAL 154 questions, 3 hours 215 questions + 1 essay
2 hours 55 minutes w/o essay
3 hours 35 minutes w/ essay

Overall, the SAT gives an average of 70 seconds per question, compared to the ACT's 49 seconds. Think about whether you may need more time to complete one of the sections.

For example, if you struggle with comprehending reading passages quickly, you might prefer the SAT since it gives nearly 20 seconds more per Reading question than the ACT does (though the former also contains 12 more Reading questions).

2. Scoring

The SAT and ACT maintain their own scoring systems, as shown below:

SAT Score Range

  • Total: 400-1600
  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 200-800
  • Math: 200-800

ACT Score Range

  • Composite: 1-36
  • English: 1-36
  • Math: 1-36
  • Reading: 1-36
  • Science: 1-36
  • Writing (Optional): 2-12

On the SAT, your total score out of 1600 is simply the sum of your Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores (the latter of which is a combination of your scores on the Reading section and the Writing and Language section).

On the ACT, your composite score out of 36 is the average — not the sum — of your four section scores for English, Math, Reading, and Science. The optional essay is scored separately.

This means your Math score counts for just one-fourth of your final ACT score but half of your final SAT score. If you struggle with math, the ACT may be a better fit for you.

3. Cost

As of June 2022, the SAT costs $60, whereas the ACT costs slightly more at $63. The ACT with the optional essay costs $88.

Both exams offer fee waivers for eligible students. With an SAT fee waiver, you can take two SAT tests for free and avoid paying late fees. You'll also get unlimited score reports to send to colleges, two chances to access answer services, waived application fees at participating schools, and a free CSS Profile.

An ACT fee waiver provides similar benefits, including four free ACT tests, unlimited score reports, waived application fees at participating schools, and free access to an official ACT online prep course.

4. No-Calculator Math Section

Unlike the ACT, the SAT splits its Math section into two subsections: one on which you may use a calculator and one on which you may not use a calculator.

The Math (No Calculator) test comes before the Math (Calculator) test and consists of 20 questions. You'll have 25 minutes, or about 75 seconds per question, to solve these problems by hand using scratch paper.

By contrast, the entire ACT Math section allows you to use a calculator (though you don't have to). If you're not sure about your ability to solve math problems by hand, the ACT may work better for you.

5. Math Reference Guide

Although the ACT allows you to use a calculator for every Math question, you won't be given any formulas on test day. The SAT is a little more forgiving in this regard.

On the SAT, you'll get a reference guide at the beginning of both the Math (No Calculator) and Math (Calculator) sections, which you can use during the exam. This guide contains a variety of math formulas, mostly for geometry problems, which make up less than 10% of SAT Math questions.

With this reference guide, there's less pressure to memorize common math formulas for the SAT than there is for the ACT.

6. Student-Produced Response Math Questions (Grid-Ins)

Another difference between the SAT and ACT Math sections is that while Math questions on the ACT are all multiple choice, the SAT includes about 13 student-produced response questions, or grid-ins.

For these problems, you must come up with the answers yourself and write them down by bubbling in the correct numbers.

7. Breadth of Math Topics

Both exams test similar math topics, with a large focus on algebra. That said, the ACT more strongly emphasizes upper-level math concepts, such as trigonometry, logarithms, and matrices.

8. Number of Answer Choices on Math

ACT Math questions have five answer choices each, whereas SAT Math questions have four. This means you'll have a slightly higher chance of choosing the correct answer on SAT Math than you will on ACT Math (a 25% chance of guessing correctly versus a 20% chance).

9. Science Section

Unlike the SAT, the ACT includes a dedicated Science section, which counts for one-fourth of your composite ACT score.

To do well on the Science section, you must know how to interpret experimental data and hypotheses and how to evaluate scientific models.

While the SAT does not include a separate Science section, many of its questions reference scientific experiments and therefore also require a deep understanding of how to interpret scientific data. These questions, which may be found on all SAT sections, make up your Analysis in Science cross-test score.

10. Evidence Questions

Both the SAT Reading and Writing sections include evidence-based question types, which the ACT does not.

With this question, your answer depends exclusively on your answer to the question directly preceding it. In other words, you need to provide "evidence" from the reading passage to show how you found your answer to the previous question. Typically, you'll be asked to identify a specific line in the reading passage from which you drew your conclusion.

11. Chronological Reading Questions

On the SAT, Reading questions generally appear chronologically, that is, in the same order in which ideas are presented in the passage.

This is not the case for the ACT. On the ACT, Reading questions, though sometimes chronological, more often follow no clear order and can apply to any part of the passage. This could confuse test-takers and make it harder to answer questions quickly.

12. Historical Documents and Older Reading Passages

If you're taking the SAT, be prepared to come across a few older reading passages from before the 20th century or early 20th century. On the Reading section, you'll always get at least one historical document, which can be tricky to understand. What's more, the literature passage is often excerpted from an older work of fiction.

ACT reading passages, in comparison, are almost always contemporary, often written within the past few decades. Test-takers who struggle to understand old-fashioned language may prefer the ACT over the SAT.

13. Optional Essay

Originally, both the SAT and ACT included an optional essay component, which required you to compose an original essay based on a given passage. As of summer 2021, however, the SAT no longer offers an optional essay.

If you want to write an essay, your only option going forward will be to take the ACT. (Note, however, that some schools that participate in SAT School Day still require students to take the SAT Essay.)

The ACT Writing section consists of one essay prompt that describes an issue. Included are three perspectives on this issue. You'll have 40 minutes to formulate a response detailing your own perspective.

ACT Writing uses a scoring scale of 2-12 and does not factor into your composite ACT score out of 36.

Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

Is the ACT or SAT a better fit for you? Below are some reasons you might take the SAT over the ACT, and vice versa.

3 Reasons to Take the SAT

  • You're Confident in Your Math Abilities: If you're feeling good about solving math problems without a calculator and having to write in your answers, the SAT would likely work better for you. Remember that the Math section counts for half of your SAT score, so if you do well on this component you could see a huge boost to your total score.
  • You Want More Time per Question: Every SAT section offers more time per question than the ACT. If you tend to think things through more slowly and want more time to fall back on in case you get stuck, the SAT may be the better option for you.
  • You're Not a Fan of Science: No Science section on the SAT means not having to worry about a separate Science score potentially dragging down your performance.

3 Reasons to Take the ACT

  • You're Less Confident in Your Math Abilities: ACT Math counts for just one quarter of your final score and allows you to use a calculator for every question. If you don't perform particularly well on the Math section, your Math score shouldn't impact your final ACT score as much as it would on the SAT.
  • Science Is One of Your Strong Suits: The ACT gives science whizzes more room to flex their analytical muscles. Earning a high score on the Science section will likely add a noticeable boost to your composite ACT score.
  • You Want to Compose an Essay: If you're a strong writer and believe an essay could strengthen your college application, take the ACT with Writing.

Can You Take Both the SAT and ACT?

Some students may be interested in taking both the SAT and ACT — and you certainly can, if you wish to do so — but it's generally best to avoid doing this.

For one, you'll have to study for two separate exams, each of which has its own structure, content, and questions. This could make your prep unnecessarily confusing, causing you to study the wrong topics or practice with the wrong time limits.

You'll also have to dedicate more time to studying, take more practice tests, and drill more content areas than you would if you were only preparing for the SAT or ACT.

In the end, your best option is to stick with one exam. If you don't do well on your first attempt, you can always take the test a second or even third time. In fact, you're more likely to score higher when you retake the ACT or SAT because you have studied more and are more familiar with the exam.

If you're still struggling to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT, consider taking a full-length SAT practice test and ACT practice test to see which one you score better on and feel more confident taking.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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