As high school students begin to look towards their future and the end of school as they know it,  the question arises about which test they should take to get into college. What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT, and which one should they take?

Colleges use ACT scores and SAT scores for college admissions. Schools also use these scores for scholarship eligibility. The ACT and the SAT are two tests with many differences, and it may be challenging to know which test to take. So before you head out and buy test prep for both tests, let’s look at which test might be a better fit for you.

We will examine colleges’ preferences, the tests’ similarities, and the tests’ differences to help you decide which test is a better fit for you. Taking practice tests will help students know which test is best for them. Also, knowing the similarities and differences will help students decide which test to take.


Do Colleges Prefer the SAT or ACT?

Depending on the college, they may prefer the SAT or ACT. Some of the preference depends on the location. Some high schools require a specific test for high school students to graduate. The colleges around those high schools may prefer that required test.

To know if college admissions require a particular test, check their admission requirements. Some colleges also require an optional essay. Finally, some colleges don’t need either test.

They base admission on applications essays and allow students to participate in remedial classes, if necessary. Students should also know that it is unnecessary to take both the ACT or SAT for any college.

How Similar are the SAT and ACT?

Although the SAT and the ACT are very different standardized tests, they have some similarities. First, they both have an optional essay section. The topic for both essay sections is an argumentative essay; however, the presentation is different on each test.

Another similarity between these two tests is that the ACT and SAT have the same material, and all colleges and universities accept both scores. However, some college admissions prefer a specific test over the other. Schools require these tests to make sure you are academically ready to handle the coursework at their college. The SAT and ACT have reading and math portions and are standardized tests.


There are many differences between the ACT  and SAT. The differences are in the subsections and differences in the scoring. You can also find differences in the format and contrasts with the number of students who take each test. Knowing the differences between each test will help you determine which test is better for you to take.

SAT, ACT Scoring

One of the most significant differences between the two tests is test scores. The ACT score is scored on a scale from 1-36. It gives each subsection a subscore. To find the ACT total composite score, they find an average and round up. Each ACT subsection has a scale of 1- 36.

The SAT score is out of 1600. Each subsection is worth 800 each. To figure out the SAT score, scorers determine how many points the student earns on each part and add them together.


Reading53 sec / question75 sec / question
Writing / English36 sec / question48 sec / question
Math60 sec / question75 sec / question (no calc)
87 sec / question (with calc)
Science53 sec / questionN/A

The amount of time between the ACT and SAT is different; therefore, the amount of time a student gets to take per question is different. According to the College Board, the SAT takes 180 minutes to complete, not including the two 10-minute breaks and the 50-minute essay. The SAT score comes from the 154 questions.

The ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes with breaks to complete. The 2 hours and 55 minutes break down into  215 ACT questions. If students take the optional ACT essay writing section, it will take 3 hours and 40 minutes with breaks to complete. The ACT has 40 % more questions than the SAT.

SAT vs. ACT Time

Every section of the SAT, except the essay, allows students 60-90 sections to answer each question. Students get 36-60 seconds to answer each item on the ACT. If you are a student who needs to think about things and check your work, the SAT is a better fit for you. If you are a student who thinks fast and is a quick test taker, the ACT is for you. Students get less time per question on the ACT.


The format between the two tests varies slightly. Each test has four sections with an optional essay. When you take the SAT, you will take the reading section, followed by a break. You will then take the writing and language section, followed by the math no calculator section, and then another break. You will finish up the SAT with the math with the calculator section.

When students take the ACT, you will take an English section, math section, reading section, and science section. You are allowed to use a calculator for the entire math section. We will examine the difference between each subsection.


Each subsection is different between the ACT and SAT. Both tests have optional essay writing, reading, and math, but there are more differences than similarities.

Math Section

There are many differences in the math sections on the ACT and SAT. The first difference is the weight of the math section. The SAT math score is half of the total score, whereas the ACT is a quarter of the total score. ACT math tests more advanced math topics like matrices, logarithms, and trigonometry. The SAT math requires logic and the ability to solve riddles because the phrasing is unlike what a student may see in class.

The math on the ACT is pretty straightforward, with higher-order thinking required, and the questions are in leveled order, with question one being the easiest and question sixty being the hardest. The ACT math, 60 minutes to answer 60 questions, allows students to use the calculator on the entire test. It is more challenging than the SAT, and you have no reference/formula sheet to use. You have five choices on the multiple-choice questions.

The SAT math test has two sections. One portion is math, no calculator, 25 minutes for 20 questions. Another part is the math calculator, 55 minutes, 38 math questions. Some of the questions are multiple-choice, whereas others require you to give a numerical answer. You get more time, a reference/formula sheet, and only four answers to choose from. It is easier than the ACT math.

Reading and Grammar Sections

Much like the ACT and SAT Mathematics sections, the reading and grammar sections have many differences. The SAT clumps Reading/Writing and Language into one score for half of the overall SAT score, where the ACT gives reading a quarter of the score and English a quarter of the score.


It is hard to determine which reading portion is more challenging because the tests are very different. The reading on the SAT seems easier, but it is not. It is half of the SAT score. The SAT implements tricks and has a variety of evidence-based questions.

Utilizing SAT test prep books is essential to learn the SAT’s tricks. The questions are in chronological order. There are more inferencing and deducing questions, and you have to justify your answer, which requires higher-order thinking skills. Students have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.

The ACT reading is more straightforward and requires more comprehension. The questions are in random order compared to the passage. The answer is right there but often reworded from the passage. It is easier. Students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions.


SAT’s writing and language section are similar to ACT’s English section; they cover English grammar. The SAT’s writing and language, 35 questions in 45 minutes, cover grammar and mechanics. The ACT’s English requires 75 questions in 45 minutes. Other than time differences, there is not much difference in content. The problems have the same style covering punctuation, ordering, and other grammar skills.


The only test that has a science section is the ACT. The SAT does not have a specific science section; therefore, the SAT score does not include a science score. The ACT’s science section is data analysis using charts, tables, graphs, and skimming for information.

It is pretty much a science-based passage with questions to follow. Like the reading test, the science test does not test the science material learned in science class but analyzes science-themed graphics. Students get 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. The SAT assesses these same concepts throughout their reading portion; however, there are fewer types of these questions on the SAT than on the ACT.


The final part of each test is the optional essay writing section. The SAT essay requires students to read a passage from literature and find rhetorical devices the author utilizes to create an argument. Students must analyze these devices. Students are studying what other people use to make arguments. Students’ allotted amount of time to complete this writing portion is 50 minutes.

The ACT essay also involves argumentative writing; however, students must argue. They must take a stance on a particular topic and provide reasoning and rhetorical devices for their perspective. The allotted amount of time is 40 minutes.


To help students decide whether to use the ACT or the SAT, it is essential to look at statistics. Princeton Review reported that 2.2 million students took the SAT in 2019, with the average SAT score dropping to 1059. If students take the SAT, they will have more competition because more students are taking the SAT.

In 2019, 1.8 million students took the ACT. 41% scored less than 18 in English, and 61% scored less than 22 in math. There is less competition when students take the ACT. However, this could change from year to year as students can complete both tests.

SAT? ACT? Which is harder?

The difficulty of the test depends on the student’s ability. We wish we could say one test was more challenging than another, but that is not true. Neither the SAT nor the ACT is more challenging overall. The math portion is more difficult on the ACT, whereas the reading portion is more difficult on the SAT. The optional SAT essay is more complicated than the ACT. Overall, there is no more demanding test; it is all determined by a student’s abilities.

How to Know Which Test?

The first thing to do while determining which test is best for you is complete practice tests. A practice test for both the ACT and SAT will give the student an idea of which structure and format work best. If you are good at math, you should complete the ACT. If you are good at Language Arts, you should complete the SAT. Another factor to consider is the requirements.

What does your dream school require for admission? Finally, consider what you plan to do with your scores. If you plan to seek a national merit scholarship from the College Board, you must complete the PSAT. Taking the PSAT will help prepare you for the SAT and help you get a good SAT score. You should plan to complete the SAT if you meet the PSAT.


It doesn’t matter which test students decide to take; the goal is to earn a score acceptable by college admissions. Knowing the similarities and differences between the ACT and SAT will help students score well. Some affordable online SAT prep courses, such as PrepScholar, help you prepare for the test.

Students will also achieve well if they complete test prep programs such as the ACT prep program offered by Princeton Review and the SAT prep program offered by Kaplan. Whichever route the student chooses, check college requirements and study hard.