Even the most prepared high school students are going to find the college admissions process to be at least a little bit overwhelming – and certainly one of the most stressful experiences of their lives.
This is especially true when it comes to taking standardized examinations (including both the SAT and ACT), examinations that are going to be used by colleges and universities to evaluate individual applicants and figure out if they are a fit for their educational program.
That’s a lot of weight to put on SAT scores and ACT scores, don’t you think?
This is why it’s so critically important to understand the big differences(and similarities) between SAT vs ACT tests. You want to be sure that you are taking the right examination to give yourself every edge and advantage as far as your educational future is concerned.
In the rest of this detailed guide we go over (almost) everything you need to know about the ACT and SAT exams.
We dig into how these exams are formatted, what these exams cover, how the exams are scored, and so much more.
By the time you are done with the inside info below test takers will have a much better idea about which of these two tests to take, how to better test prep, and how to get the best possible score to unlock educational opportunities moving forward.
Let’s get into it right now!
As highlighted a moment ago, the two “top-tier” admissions examinations in the United States – and, more recently, around the world – have to be the SAT and ACT standardized tests.
Both of these standardized tests are used by universities and colleges across the country to better assess the individual academic capabilities of students applying to those higher learning institutions.
While not the exclusive determining factor that helps and admissions board or college board figure out whether or not a student is the right fit, these have a tremendous amount of weight in whether or not a student gets accepted into an organization – or has to fall back on one of their “safety schools”.
Let’s get a little bit into the history of these exams and then shine a light on why they are so important.
The SAT test (also known as the Scholastic Assessment Test) was originally created all the way back in 1926 by an organization known as the College Board. This organization continues to administer and run these exams, all with the singular goal of helping to provide some sort of standardized measure to better understand the capabilities of students looking to join a college or university.
And while the fundamental basics of the SAT have changed over the years (or almost 100 years, in fact), at the end of the day this test remains focused on three core areas – reading, writing, and mathematics.
The ACT, however, is a considerably more modern standardized test. It was only first established back in 1959, created by a private organization known as ACT Incorporated.
Originally (and still today) engineered as a viable alternative to SAT tests, the ACT tries to take a more holistic view of what students would have learned in high school instead of focusing more narrowly on three distinct categories the way that the SAT test will.
While both the SAT and ACT tests focus on reading, writing, and mathematics, ACT also dives a little deeper into a science section – a section added not only to encompass this specific educational area, but also to better analyze critical thinking capabilities of students.
At the end of the day, while the SAT and ACT tests are both standardized and designed to be used for admissions purposes they do have some major differences.
On top of the SAT test being built on the back of three categories in the ACT test having four, the way test scores are handled for the SAT and ACT examinations are pretty different, too.
SAT scores are calculated on a scale between 400 and 1600, with individual scores for each individual section of the exam.
ACT scores, on the other hand, range between 1 and 36. Scores are a composite of the average of all four individual test scores sections.
The SAT examination also places a more significant emphasis on critical reading and writing skills. The ACT, on the other hand, is a bit more focused on how well-rounded a student is with their high school education.
Students taking these tests will also find the SAT to have a mandatory essay section, whereas the ACT has a 100% optional writing section students can use to “boost” their scores a bit.
All in all, these exams have a lot more in common with one another than they have differences – but the differences between SAT or ACT tests are not insignificant.
We dig little bit deeper into all of that below.
Because both ACT and SAT examinations are used by organizations of higher learning to assess the academic capabilities of students that are applying they have similar structures and cover similar blocks of content.
That said, it’s not hard to find some real differences between SAT vs ACT tests when you look at how these exams are structured and composed.
SAT testtakers are going to find their exams made up of three main sections. We are talking about the critical reading, writing, and mathematics sections.
Critical reading passages are going to really test a test takers ability to both read and understand the passages provided – and we’re not just talking about “word problems”, either. These passages are often pulled from a wide range of different sources, including both literary and more informational texts.
As far as the writing section of the SAT tests are concerned, these are structured to better evaluate the writing skills of a student from a couple of different perspectives. The test allows quick and relatively easy grading of grammar, sentence structure, coherence, and the overall ability to communicate with the written word.
Finally, the SAT math section covers a student’s knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and even a bit of trigonometry.
ACT test takers, though, are going to find their standardized examinations made up of four different sections:
English, mathematics, reading, and science.
The English section of the ACT test often looks a lot like the SAT writing section. It tests a student’s grasp of grammar, rhetorical skills, and their ability to communicate through writing.
The ACT math section is often considered to be a little more straightforward and less “abstract” than the SAT math section, though both the ACT and SAT tests are going to put high school students through their paces when it comes to showcasing their mathematics abilities.
In the reading section, students taking the ACT are going to be challenged with reading and then analyzing a number of different texts. Fictional and nonfictional passages make up the bulk of this section, with students asked to do a bit more “heavy lifting” in this department than they would have with the SAT.
The science section of the ACT is completely distinct and different than anything the SAT test offers.
Students are going to be tasked with evidence-based reading challenges, and there’s often a lot of overlap between the science and math sections of this college entrance exam.
It’s important to have halfway decent scientific abilities to find supporting details, wrestle with scientific reasoning, and communicate your findings effectively with the written word.
As far as the kinds of questions that the SAT or ACT ask, you’re going to find that the SAT test focuses a little heavier on reasoning and critical thinking skills while the ACT is slightly more focused on your overall knowledge base of the subjects that are being tested.
SAT testers are often going to find themselves analyzing different passages, problem-solving, and writing essays (even outside of the optional writing section). ACT testers are going to be more focused on finding the core idea, illustrating supporting details, and showing a firm grasp of scientific reasoning.
At the end of the day, you should know that while these tests have a lot in common they are not created to overlap or copy one another.
There’s quite a bit of difference between both the SAT and ACT tests, and students that have particular strengths might want to focus on one test versus another.
For example, students that have a strong grasp of critical reading and writing skills might find the SAT a little easier to take. Those that have a firmer grasp of mathematics and science, though, will see higher ACT test scores for sure.
All in all, it really comes down to the kind of college you’re applying to, the kind of programs and education you’re looking to get, your unique skills and abilities, and putting yourself in the best position to succeed.
Format and Timing
One of the more often overlooked things to consider when choosing between ACT and SAT exams are the format and timing of these tests.
Better understanding of the core differences between format and timing of these exams can give students a huge advantage when it comes to preparation, helping them to perform at the highest level when test day rolls around.
As we have mentioned a couple of times already, the SAT focuses on three major sections – reading, writing, and mathematics.
In the critical reading section you’re going to find to 25 minutes sections and a third 20 minutes section, making up 70 minutes of testing.
The writing section is broken down into a 25 minute essay and a 25 minute multiple-choice section, making up another 50 minutes of testing.
Finally, you get to the mathematics section that is made up of two individual 25 minute sections and another 20 minutes section. This mimics the reading section, and adds another 70 minutes to the test.
At the end of the day, the entirety of the SAT will take about three hours and 45 minutes to complete, with another 50 minutes set aside for the optional essay to be completed.
As far as the ACT is concerned, you have four individual sections – English, mathematics, reading, and science.
The English section is made up of a 45 minute test with 75 different multiple-choice questions. The mathematics section features a 60 minute test with 60 multiple-choice questions.
Testing students will then move into a reading section, time to 435 minutes with 40 multiple-choice questions. The last chunk of the ACT is the science section, a 35 minute section that has 40 multiple-choice questions to complete.
All told, the entire ACT exam is going to take about three hours and 35 minutes to finish, with an extra 40 minutes added on for the optional essay section.
When you are looking at the timing of these two exams, critical for test prep, one test (the SAT) certainly allows a little more time for each individual question to be answered while one test (the ACT) takes a little less time to complete overall.
The ACT is one test that is designed to test a broader range of educational disciplines, but the faster pace (and less breaks in between sections) means that students really need to be on top of their game.
Of course, on the other hand, you also have some students that feel the SAT and its longer testing time can really draw things out and push students past their “educational stamina breaking point”.
Something to consider, anyway.
Having a great understanding of how the composite score of ACT scores and SAT scores are created will give you a huge advantage when it comes to deciding which test to take and how to really prepare for it.
With a better understanding of how the SAT and ACT tests are scored you’ll be able to set more realistic goals, design a study strategy that works, and stack the deck in your favor to perform the best you can when test day rolls around.
SAT tests are made up of a composite score that goes all the way up to 1600, with a maximum total of 800 points available for each of the two main scored sections – critical reading and mathematics.
The third section of the SAT (the writing section) is scored separately, and it’s given a score of anywhere between two and eight points. Your optional essay will not be included in the overall 1600 point score calculation, but will instead be provided with your test scores – and your application – to admission officers for them to read.
You’ll also find that the SAT offers a whole range of “subscores”. These subscores get a lot more granular, highlighting how well you scored in specific areas (like grammar, mathematical problem-solving, etc.), too.
ACT scores, on the other hand, are scored on a 36 point scale – with a maximum of 36 points available for each of the individual core sections.
A composite score is made up of those four scores averaged out, with a fifth score (your writing score) recorded separately.
Because both the SAT and ACT have different test score scales it can be a little tough to compare them directly against one another. At the same time, colleges and universities often considered both of these exams to be equivalent to one another and will accept either one. That’s huge, as students won’t have to prepare, pay for, or take both of these tests to get into the schools of their dreams.
You should also know that the SAT and ACT exams take different approaches when it comes to how individual questions are weighted for the scoring process.
SAT standardized exams and SAT questions (and answers) are going to be adjusted and weighted based off of the overall difficulty of the test itself The ACT, on the other hand, doesn’t do any of that weighting with questions and will not grade on a curve.
One final thing:
Some of the colleges and universities out there will provide information about what they want to see for a final ACT score and SAT total score, especially as a “minimum requirement” for admissions.
It’s not a bad idea looking that information up about the university you want to attend and then using that target score to decide whether or not you take the ACT or the SAT instead.
The kinds of questions you’re going to find on either the ACT or SAT will have a major impact on how both the tests are completed, and which one you want to take to set up your college admissions applications for success.
Having a real solid understanding of the types of questions asked, what kinds of skills are being tested, and how to best complete these tests can make or break how well you do.
SAT exams focus heavily on your reading comprehension and vocabulary capabilities. In the writing section, you’re going to have your grammar and rhetorical skills tested. And then, of course, once you hit the mathematics section you’ll be tested for your proficiency in things like arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and how you problem solve.
All questions on the SAT test are going to be made in multiple-choice format, with four answer options available for each question.
The ACT, on the other hand, has an English section that tests your grammar usage and rhetorical skills, but it also has a dedicated reading section to better test your comprehension. The ACT science section focuses more on data analysis and critical reasoning skills than anything else. Mathematics will test you similarly to the way that the SAT math section tests you.
Most ACT questions are also going to be made up of multiple-choice options, though the English section has a dedicated writing and language section compared to the optional essay portion of the SAT.
You should know before you go into these two tests that the SAT has a history of putting forward tricky and complex questions, specifically designed to slow down and install students that aren’t as prepared as they should be.
The ACT, on the other hand, encourages students to be taking practice tests regularly but their questions are a lot more straightforward and generally easier to understand.
Keep all of this in mind before you decide to submit SAT or ACT exam sign-ups. You need to know exactly what you are getting into, especially if you want to get the best possible section scores (and the best score on the entire test) possible.
There’s a lot that goes into test preparation when it comes to both the ACT and SAT exams.
We’re not just talking about taking practice tests after practice tests, either (though those can be a big piece of the puzzle).
No, serious test prep for the SAT and ACT exams requires a bit of focus, some real strategy, and help from the kinds of tips and tricks we share below.
Use these strategies to help you better prepare for the SAT or ACT test in your future!
One of the smartest moves you can make when getting ready to prepare for the SAT is to get your hands on test prep materials – official study materials – directly from the The College Board.
The College Board is the organization that created and that continues to administer the SAT, so it’s hard to imagine better test prep materials coming from anyone else.
You’ll be able to get your hands on practice tests, detailed study guides, and a whole host of online resources. Some of these resources are available 100% free of charge, though other resources will have a price tag attached.
It’s a good idea to start with the free test prep solutions before moving into the more premium options.
Enrolling in a practice test (online or locally) is another smart move.
You’ll learn how these kinds of tests are structured, how to navigate the different sections, and how to get the best possible final score by the time you finish. The biggest advantage here for doing a “dry run” is that you gain the knowledge and confidence you need to move swiftly through the test when it’s for real.
Finally, you might want to consider employing a tutor that can help you get the best possible test score on some of the tougher SAT questions.
Experienced tutors can give you the kind of “inside information” and insight into getting the best final score that would have been tough to uncover on your own without their years of expertise.
Something to think about, anyway.
Preparing for the ACT test is a lot like preparing for the SATs, though obviously you’ll want to make sure that your practice includes questions focused on the dedicated science section, critically reading passages, and knocking out the kinds of math sections that the ACT has compared to the SATs.
Like The College Board, ACT Inc. (the organization behind this test) provides a whole range of study materials. We are talking about practice tests and examinations, detailed study guides, and a wide range of online resources designed specifically to help you get the best possible score going forward.
Local test preps for the ACT can be a little more challenging to find, but if you’re willing to travel a bit further you can likely find an ACT examination within a short drive.
These are definitely worth signing up for and taking, if only to get a better feel for the kind of data analysis and writing and language questions you’re going to find on the ACT. Taking a practice test can dramatically increase your odds of getting the kind of total score you are hoping for, a score as close to 36 as possible, opening up a lot of educational opportunities later down the line.
Hiring a private tutor may be a smart move as well, though you’ll want to be sure that you hire a tutor that focuses on the ACT’s and isn’t a “generalist” when it comes to these kinds of examinations.
You want them to help you with this test specifically, increasing your odds of getting the kind of English, reading, science, and math score you need to succeed.
Bonus Test Preparation Strategies
Regardless of whether or not you are preparing for the ACT or SAT, there are a couple of test preparation strategies you’ll want to keep in your back pocket to give yourself every advantage needed to succeed.
Build a smart study schedule – Creating a strict study schedule that helps you stay better organized and focused will give you a huge edge when test day rolls around
Identify (and correct) areas of weakness – Look at the incorrect answers you’ve produced on your practice exams and figure out what went sideways. Find your weaknesses and then remedy the situation with in-depth study to help them from dragging down your total score later.
Make sure you are rested – Study after study conclusively proves that getting a great night’s sleep before you test helps you achieve better scores. Make sure to get plenty of rest the night before.
Have a test taking strategy – Both the SAT and ACT require you to answer a bunch of questions (challenging questions, at that) under pressure and while time. Have a strategy that helps you move through the test efficiently, bouncing from the ACT math section to the evidence questions to the ACT test science questions (for example) so that you can have time left to spare when you’re finished with the exam.
Figuring out the cost of both the ACT and SAT is a little more challenging than just looking at the price tag of the actual exams themselves.
There’s a lot more that needs to be considered.
Let’s break that down right now!
Test Fee – The standard testing fee for the SAT (as of 2023) is $64.50. The same fee for the ACT sits at $52 even. These fees need to be paid upfront (during the registration process) and cover the cost of both taking the examination and having your scores returned to you. If those prices seem a little steep you’ll be glad to know that certain students may be able to get a financial waiver to take these exams for free.
Score Reporting Fees – While the ACT and SAT fees described above include scores being returned back to you, every time you want your scores sent to a college or university you are applying for you’ll need to pay a separate and extra fee. This fee for SAT scores is $12 per report while the ACT scores will cost $13 per report.
Test Prep Materials – Though there are certainly a lot more free ACT and SAT test prep materials available today compared to even just a handful of years ago (and a lot more quality prep materials, at that), some of the best resources are going to cost money. It’s not uncommon for prep materials to have a price tag of anywhere between $10 and $50 (or more) attached to them.
Prep Test Classes – Taking a practice test in advance can be a great way to protect yourself and your “real” final score, giving you insight and information into how these tests are administered. They aren’t free, though. Prep classes can cost anywhere between $200 and thousand dollars or more.
Private Tutoring – Private tutoring is maybe the most expensive way to really prepare for these exams, with no real concrete figure setting the market. It’s possible to find tutors for the SAT or ACT that cost you anywhere between $50 and $200 or more per hour.
Test Day Experience
It’s not at all unusual for the SAT or ACT test day experience to be really stressful – and sometimes even overwhelming – for even the most prepared students.
Luckily, there are things you can do to kind of calm yourself down in advance. A big part of that is understanding what to expect even if you haven’t taken a practice test in person already.
SAT Test Day Experience – As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to expect your SAT test day to last 4 1/2 hours or so (maybe even longer than that). The test itself is about four hours long, with students encouraged to arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of time – and with a couple of breaks in between.
You’ll want to make sure that you arrive with plenty of time to get comfortable. Bring your photo ID, your admission form, and accepted calculator, and any snacks or drinks you might want to have during the break.
Take your time but move deliberately through your test until each section has been completed and your final SAT score can be calculated.
ACT Test Day Experience – Even though the ACT takes a little bit less time to complete than the SAT, you’re still going to want to anticipate your test day to last 4 1/2 hours or a little bit longer.
Just like with SAT tests, the ACT folks recommend that you arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled start time. This gives you a chance to settle in and settle down, verify that you have all of your supplies, and confirm your registration.
Bring your photo ID, and authorized calculator, your registration paper, and snacks and drinks.
Test Day Strategies
To give yourself the best chance of success on test day, you’ll want to try and focus on these core test day strategies:
Rest stop – Getting a great night’s worth of sleep before exam day is a huge piece of the success puzzle. Do whatever it takes to get as much sleep and rest as you can.
Eat a quality breakfast – Load up on a nutritious breakfast, flooding your body with all the fuel you need to push yourself mentally during one of the most grueling exams you’ll ever take.
Prepare your exam materials the night before – You don’t want to be scrambling in the morning for the materials you’ll need to take or complete your tasks. Get your photo ID, registration papers, calculators, scrap paper, and snacks/drinks ready to roll the night before.
Use smart time management strategies – Keep an eye on the clock while you move through the exam itself. You want to pace yourself so that you have plenty of time to answer all of the questions.
Stay relaxed but hyper focused – Do everything in your power to stay loose, to stay relaxed, but to stay focused on the task at hand. Regardless of whether or not you’re taking the SAT or ACT you want to be sure that you aren’t letting the pressure get to you.
Can (And Should) You Take Both the ACT and SAT Tests?
While you don’t necessarily have to take both the ACT and SAT together – you can get away with taking either the ACT or SAT) – there are certainly some people that like to “double up” to increase their odds of success going forward.
This approach can work wonders for those that want to really optimize their opportunities, giving themselves a chance to submit the specific scores that highlight their academic achievements and capabilities in the best light.
All that said, taking both of these tests is going to require a ton of time, ton of energy, a ton of effort, and a bit more money. You’re really going to have to crunch, as the ACT science section isn’t anywhere in the SATs and the math sections (as well as the writing and language sections) of these tests are not identical, either.
Of course, for committed students that are willing to put in the time, energy, and the extra effort taking both of these tests – ideally spacing them out so that you don’t have to “crunch” for both tests at the same time – can prove to be hugely beneficial.
You’ll be able to navigate both of these tests, figure out which one plays well to your strengths (which one emphasizes your weaknesses), and you’ll then have two different test scores to pick and choose from to send to colleges and universities rather than getting stuck with a single score.
On top of all of that, it’s important to remember that some colleges and universities prefer to see one test score or the other.
If your top choice of school really wants to see the score for an ACT test but your second, third, and fourth choices really want to see the SATs, it’s probably a good idea to consider taking both of these tests just to have all of your bases covered.
At the end of the day, both of these examinations – SATs and ACT’s – are the “gold standard” as far as standardized tests for college and university admissions for a reason.
Though these tests have significant differences between one another, they both do their level best to measure a student’s academic capabilities, their knowledge, and everything they would bring to the student body of the colleges and universities they are applying to.
Some students are certainly going to be better suited to the SAT testing experience whereas others (particularly those that have a lot of strengths in science and mathematics) are going to want to more seriously consider the ACT’s.
Figuring out the right test for you to take may come down to getting your hands on a couple of simple tests or taking practice classes, going through the ins and outs of both of these experiences, and then choosing the test that really sets you up for success going forward.
No matter which direction you decide to take, be sure that you give yourself plenty of time to prepare and study. This is not something that you want to “cram” for. It’s not something that you want to take lightly, either.
The results of this test – ACT or SAT – will have a huge impact on the school you go to, the kind of education you get, and maybe even the career that you set yourself up for later on in life.
Take this seriously and you’ll be good to go!