ACT vs SAT: Key Differences and Similarities

A smiling high school student with more students in the background

The choice between the ACT and the SAT is really tough, and most high school students wonder which side of this epic battle they should take. Both the ACT and the SAT are accepted by many universities in the United States and are taken by millions of students. In this post, we bring together all the best information about the differences and similarities between the ACT and the SAT to help you make this important decision.

ACT vs SAT Quiz

If you’re short on time, try our free quiz to get an answer on whether you should take the ACT vs SAT!

Test Format and Timing

The ACT takes 2 hours 55 minutes to complete without the essay and 3 hours 35 minutes with the essay. It takes 3 hours to complete the SAT (no essay). Now, let’s dissect how the sections and the order in which they appear are different on the ACT vs SAT.

Sections and Order

The ACT has four multiple-choice sections and an optional essay. Its sections are always presented in this order:

  1. English
  2. Math
  3. Reading
  4. Science
  5. Optional essay.

The SAT has four test sections. The order is

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Math with calculators not allowed
  4. Math section (calculators allowed)

Time Per Question

It is also important to note that one of the main challenges of the ACT is its time constraints. The majority of students struggle to complete at least one of the ACT test sections, and many students struggle to complete several sections within the time limit.

Still, the fact remains that every section of the ACT takes less time per question than the SAT. Overall, across sections, the ACT takes an average of 50 seconds per question and the SAT takes 1 minute 10 seconds per question. However, keep in mind that the questions from each test have different styles. SAT questions can take longer to analyze than the ACT questions and thus take extra time to complete.

Liam got a 35 on the ACT. Get a higher ACT score with Magoosh.

Only the ACT Has a Science Section

The science section is specific to the ACT. There are no other standardized tests with anything similar to this, except those developed by the ACT organization.

Before jumping to the conclusion of whether you are good at science in order to judge whether you can do well on the ACT, you really need to know that there is very little real scientific knowledge tested in the ACT Science section.

You will see some questions that require you to bring in external knowledge, but most of them relate to your ability to read tables and graphs, make inferences about the scientific situation, and evaluate scientific hypotheses. Before making a decision on your capabilities for this section, it is recommended that you review the ACT Science video lessons or the examples of ACT Science questions on the ACT website.

Math Emphasis of Each Test

The SAT will ask you some questions about advanced math and trigonometry. However, the ACT seems to contain more questions in the areas of algebra II and trigonometry. But don’t panic if you haven’t studied trigonometry in either test. Knowledge of all trigonometry tested in either the SAT or the ACT is at a very basic level, and you can learn what you need to know in the SAT Trigonometry Learning Guide and the ACT Trigonometry Resources.

The SAT Has a No-Calculator Section

The SAT contains a 25-minute non-calculator section with 20 questions. The calculations here are designed to be easy to do by hand, but keep in mind that you may want to hone your mental math skills. If you can see and calculate a ton of math problems in your head, you may have an advantage in the SAT over many of your peers.

ACT Reading Passages are Longer

The ACT has four longer passages (700-900 words) and the SAT has five slightly shorter passages (500-750 words). In general, reading comprehension is a little more intense on the ACT than on the SAT, but the difference is mostly negligible.

ACT English vs SAT Writing and Language

If you take a look at the English section of the ACT and the Writing and Language section of the SAT, they appear to be virtually the same. Not only that, they test many of the same concepts. Arguably, these concepts are tested in a more subtle way in the SAT than in the ACT, and with more subtle answer choice variation. Still, it is important to note the difference in reading level between the tests and their approaches to the information graphic questions.

All passages in the ACT English section hover around a relatively low reading level (for example, about 9th grade). However, the text in the Writing and Language section of the SAT may vary in difficulty level from early high school to early college. In the ACT, all questions are about the given text. The SAT will also ask some questions about text-related tables and graphs.

The ACT Has an Optional Essay (ACT Writing)

As mentioned earlier, the ACT has an optional essay. The ACT essay offers three different perspectives on controversial issues and asks you to evaluate them and present your own perspective. Of course, for those who are good at discussing on the fly and coming up with supporting examples, it may be a good choice to write the ACT essay.

Different Scoring System

The ACT uses so-called composite scores to provide students with an overall ACT score. The overall composite score ranges from 1 to 36. You will also receive scores for each individual section ranging from 1 to 36, but with most universities, it is the composite score that matters. The overall composite score is the average of the section scores and is rounded to the nearest integer.

SAT scores range from 400 to 1600. Your overall score is based on a sum of your 200-800 Reading/Writing score and your 200-800 Math score. Note that the SAT has three major multiple-choice sections (Reading, Writing, Math), but Reading and Writing are grouped into one combined score out of 800 points.

If you take both the SAT and the ACT, how can you find out which scores you should send to your school or scholarship program? Don’t let different score scales confuse you! ACT to SAT conversion (and SAT to ACT conversion) is possible. This ACT to SAT conversion table makes it easy to convert the ACT scores to the SAT scores.

Different Test Dates

The SAT and the ACT alternate every month (except June, October and December). Both tests are offered seven times a year. Sometimes their schedules align so you can take the SAT and the ACT on consecutive weekends. Some students do that, but it’s not always wise. Would you want to spend two weekends at the test center and study for two different tests at the same time? Probably not.

In an ideal world, you would just have to choose one of the tests to take. After all, making this decision is the point of this post! If you do take both, it’s best to have at least a month (ideally more) between test sessions to switch gears.

Different Costs and Fees

The ACT usually costs $55 without the essay and $70 with the essay. The cost of the SAT is usually $52. There may be additional charges depending on the situation. Students who cannot afford to take the ACT or the SAT can often work with their high schools to get fee exemptions. This allows you to take the test for free (with or without an essay), but the fee exemption usually does not cover the additional charges.

Varying Popularity by State

The SAT remains popular on the East and West Coasts, while the ACT is a more popular test in the Midwest, although in recent years both tests have become established in areas where they were previously less popular. Currently, it is common for students across the country to take both exams.

ACT vs SAT infographic

Click the thumbnail to view our handy infographic comparing the ACT and SAT!

The ACT vs the SAT: Which is easier? Which is harder?

The ACT may be easier than the SAT if:

  • You work really fast. Usually, you don’t have any shortage of test time at school, and you’re a fast reader. The ACT is, in many respects, an even easier test if you have the speed to complete it in time.
  • You like science and are good at interpreting data and trends. Earlier I told you that you don’t need to know a lot of science to be successful in the ACT Science section. This is still true, but it doesn’t hurt to be interested in what you are reading. Students who may not be science fans, but who are really good at seeing trends in graphs and tables and can guess the next steps in a logical process, can also succeed in the ACT Science.
  • You are super reliant on your calculator in your math classes. You may find the SAT no-calculator section and the grid-in may be a little scarier than ACT math.

The SAT may be easier than the ACT if:

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

16 Responses to ACT vs SAT: Key Differences and Similarities

  1. Sasha November 29, 2016 at 10:10 am #

    Wow, very clear comparisons. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. Sue December 2, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    I have never heard any school ever say, ” Some top schools (aka a few of the Ivies) have indicated that they like to see both scores. It gives them more data to have confidence that you are strong across the board. ”

    Am just wondering if you can support this with specific schools or programs? It might seem reasonable on the one hand, but on the other hand, I think it could drive a lot of students to take both tests. I know you said “This is not a mandate,” but I still would be very interested in your sources. Thank you!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 6, 2016 at 8:36 am #

      Hello Sue,

      Great question. You’re right that this isn’t a mandate,a nd to be honest, the exact value of submitting both SAT and ACT scores is uncertain.

      However, some universities do indeed specify that they want to see both your SAT scores and your ACT scores, if you’ve taken both exams. Stanford requires you to send in scores from both tests… if you’ve taken both exams. (But note that you don’t have to take both tests; you just need to show scores from both tests if you have CHOSEN to take both tests.) Brown says you don’t need to submit scores form both exams, but that if you choose to send both an SAT and ACT score, both will be considered.

      Those are just two examples. If you look carefully at the admissions websites of a few other top schools, you’ll see similar policies. None of these top school policies are a resounding demand for both scores. However, the assumption is that thew schools wouldn’t say that they accept both scores together unless there were some value in submitting two topnotch scores form two exams. Again, how much value is a little unclear.

  3. Will Fraser December 14, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    My son has been selected to take the SAT or ACT test as a seventh grader. My impression is that the SAT would be a better choice since it looks more at aptitude and less at class work. Do you agree?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 16, 2016 at 7:40 am #

      That’s a tough call. The SAT and ACT are actually very similar when it comes to measuring general aptitude vs. the content knowledge you get from class work. Even the ACT science section only requires a very bare minimum of actual science knowledge; it’s much more focused on aptitude for reading science texts, charts, tables and graphs.

      Still, I think you may be right that the SAT would be better for a seventh grader, since the SAT doesn’t require any science content knowledge.

  4. Shreyas December 22, 2016 at 4:49 am #

    i cant decide between SAT and ACT. Maths is easy for me on both tests. Writing is also similar on both tests. I can manage Science for the ACT. My major problem is reading. Time is short for me on the ACT while the passages are itself difficult for me on the SAT. What should I do?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 23, 2016 at 10:32 am #

      Hi Shreyas,

      This is a difficult question, and I’m afraid that there is no perfect answer. Based on this information, you will have to spend some time preparing for the reading section of either test in order to get a strong score. So the question is: what do you think you can improve the most in the time you have? Can you improve the speed for the ACT or overall comprehension in the SAT? I recommend the following two blog posts to get an idea of what you need to do to improve your scores in both sections: Tips to Improve ACT Reading and Ten Tips to Improve SAT Reading. Use these tips to get an idea of what will be required for improvement in each test, and decide which one will be easiest for you 🙂

  5. Connor January 3, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    Okay I am terrible at math, both also not the fastest test taker which do you recommend I take? The ACT?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 5, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

      Hi Connor,

      Unfortunately, this is a complex decision. I can provide you with some guidance, but only you can decide which test is best for you! The SAT allows you more time and won’t have as many difficult math questions, so that could be a good option for you. However, the best way to decide is to take a practice test for each one (or at least practice some of each type of question in timed conditions.) That way, you can get an idea of which test you are more comfortable with and understand your strengths and weaknesses. You can find some resources for SAT practice tests and ACT practice tests on our blog! 😀

  6. Michael D Yaccino March 5, 2017 at 8:41 am #

    I need to take either the SAT or ACT for the Illinois Teacher license. I have not been in school for over 20 years. Do you Have an opinion on which might be better to take after the time away from school?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 6, 2017 at 2:09 am #

      Hi Michael,

      That depends on which types of questions you feel more prepared to handle. The ACT includes science, for example, and the SAT does not. I would take a practice test of each one to help determine where you naturally do better. Good luck! 🙂

  7. Bill Jennings March 14, 2017 at 6:39 am #

    Our student didn’t do very well on the SAT, and after several weeks of tutoring was only able to increase his test score marginally. We’ve been told that he may do better with taking the ACT. Anyone else have a similar experience? Is this worth the effort on his and our part?

  8. Heloisa February 18, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    Thank so much for this information. What about foreign students? Can they do these tests?

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 18, 2018 at 12:56 pm #

      Yes, foreign students can take these exams. In fact, you can probably take the ACT, the SAT, or both right in your home country. Just look up your home country in the ACT Test Center Locator or the SAT’s Find Test Centers page.

      One word of caution, though– make sure the American (or Canadian) schools you’re applying to actually require the ACT or SAT for foreign applicants. Some universities do ask international students to take one of these two exams. However, there are also quite a few schools that only want English proficiency exams (TOEFL, IELTS, etc.) from their foreign applicants.

  9. Raghav Agarwal July 24, 2018 at 8:26 pm #

    I livein india and am thinking to go to USA for studying business.
    i am pretty good at mental maths, but my reading is not that good,
    i can read fast but not comprehend them very nicely. i m also
    looking for a scholarship from collages , could i get it from
    ACT or SAT scores.pls help

    • David Recine
      David Recine July 25, 2018 at 5:33 am #

      Hi Raghav,

      So often, our students are either strong in math but need to improve in reading, or vice-versa. So the challenge you face is a common one, and one I’ve seen many students overcome. How you overcome Reading challenges depends on the exact kinds of challenges you face. So I recommend thinking about exactly what your SAT and ACT reading comprehension weaknesses are. For example, which ACT Reading or SAT Reading question types are hardest for you? And what skills are most difficult? (vocabulary comprehension, understand inferences, etc?) Once you’ve figured out your exact weaknesses, use targeted practice to build more skills in those areas.

      This blog can provide you with a lot of practice and advice, as can official materials from the test makers, such as the websites and official guides for either the SAT or ACT. You may also want to consider subscribing to Magoosh ACT or Magoosh SAT, depending on which test you plan to take.

      As for scholarships, Magoosh has you covered there too. Check out our guides to ACT-based scholarships and scholarships based on SAT scores.


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