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June 25, 2019

SAT vs ACT: Which test is BEST for you?


Both the ACT and the SAT are used by schools in the US for admission and scholarship purposes. But you probably know that they aren’t exactly the same. The SAT vs ACT dilemma is one that is faced by many students year after year—especially those who are gunning for the Ivy League schools.

While a lot of test-takers choose to take both exams, you do have the option to take just one. In that case, which test is best for you? Will having a good score on the SAT automatically guarantee a good score on the ACT? Read more to find out!

SAT vs ACT comparison chart

Let’s start off with an SAT vs ACT comparison chart. Here you’ll find some of the main aspects that separate the ACT from the SAT, a comparison of SAT vs ACT scores, and cost information.

Aspects SATACT
Test structure (In order) ReadingWriting and LanguageMath (No calculator allowed)Math (Calculator allowed)Essay (Optional) EnglishMath (Calculator allowed)ReadingScienceEssay/Writing (Optional)
Number of questions per section Reading: 52 questions Writing and Language: 44 questions Math (No calculator): 20 questions Math (With calculator): 38 questions Essay (Optional): 1 essay English: 75 questions Math: 60 questions Reading: 40 questions Science: 40 questions Essay/Writing (Optional): 1 essay
Total test-taking time (without the optional essay) 3 hours 2 hours 55 minutes
Total test-taking time (with the optional essay) 3 hours 50 minutes 3 hours 35 minutes
Time limit per section Reading: 65 minutes Writing and Language:35 minutes Math (No calculator): 25 minutes Math (With calculator): 55 minutes Essay (Optional): 50 minutes English: 45 minutes Math: 60 minutes Reading: 35 minutes Science: 35 minutes Essay/Writing (Optional): 40 minutes
Total score range 400 to 1600 1 to 36
SAT vs ACT scores The Math and Reading/Writing sections are each scored on a scale of 200 to 800, which are then combined for your total SAT score. Each section is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The average of the four sections will determine your final ACT score.
Cost Without the optional essay: $47.50 With the optional essay: $64.50 Without the optional essay: $50.50 With the optional essay: $67
Accepted and recognized by All universities and colleges in the US All universities and colleges in the US

SAT vs ACT: Similarities

At their very core, comparing the SAT vs ACT, the two college application tests aren’t that different. After all, they both essentially aim to measure college readiness by testing your proficiency in a number of critical skills.

Also, both the ACT and the SAT are widely recognized standard tests in the US. They are used by colleges and universities as an admission requirement and as bases for merit-based scholarships. Because all US schools accept either ACT or SAT scores (or both), one isn’t better than the other in this aspect. You will be able to apply to the same schools regardless of which exam you choose to take.

Now, the ACT and the SAT used to have more differences. However, due to a significant redesign of the SAT back in 2016, they’re now more similar than ever. Both tests contain various sections in a predetermined order—although the sections are not exactly identical, as will be discussed later on.

What’s more, all test-takers can now choose to take the optional essay section on both tests. Also, it’s important to note that whether you take the SAT or the ACT, your essay score will not count toward your final test score.

Both tests also use rights-only scoring, which means you will not be penalized for incorrect answers or items that have been left blank. Lastly, both the ACT and the SAT contain Math, Reading, and English/Writing sections.

SAT vs ACT: What’s Different?

The SAT and the ACT may aim to test your proficiency in the same skills—such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and reading comprehension—but their structure is different.

#1 Science Section

As you may have observed from the chart above, the ACT has its own separate Science section, but the SAT does not. Now, does this mean that you won’t have to prepare for Science at all if you’re planning to take just the SAT? Not necessarily. While it doesn’t have a section dedicated solely to science, the SAT still incorporates science questions throughout the test.

What’s more, the SAT has an Analysis in Science cross-test score, which can be found among the subscores given to SAT test-takers. The truth, however, is that most schools will likely not pay as much attention to this subscore as much as it will to the ACT Science score. So, if science is your strongest suit and you’re confident that it will significantly raise your score, the ACT might be a better fit for you. In the ACT, score in the section will contribute 25% to your overall ACT score.

#2 Math Topics/Concepts

Here are the topics covered in the Math section of the SAT:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra I and II
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Data Analysis

Meanwhile, here are the topics covered in the Math section of the ACT:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra I and II
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Statistics and Probability

As you can see, both tests contain Algebra, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Trigonometry. The SAT, however, includes Data Analysis questions, while the ACT places more emphasis on Statistics and Probability.

It’s also worth noting that that ACT allots more questions to geometry topics (roughly 1/3 of ACT Math) compared to the SAT, where Geometry accounts for typically less than 10% of all math questions. The ACT also includes questions on matrices, logarithms, and graphical representation of trig functions, while the SAT does not.

That said, you have to consider which particular set of Math questions is a better match for your strengths. If you excel in Data Analysis and Algebra, go for the SAT. But if you’d much rather answer the topics we’ve mentioned under the ACT, then it’s the obvious pick.

#3 Calculator Use

On the ACT, students are allowed to use a calculator for all Math questions. On the SAT, the Math section will be comprised of two subsections: one where a calculator is allowed and one where it isn’t.

What does this mean? If you rely heavily on your calculator or are the type who struggles with manually solving math problems quickly, you’d probably perform better on ACT Math than you would on SAT Math.

On the flip side, know that all questions on both the ACT and the SAT can technically be solved without a calculator. It follows, then, that the No Calculator questions are simply more reasoning-based in nature instead of being heavy in arithmetic. So if you’re confident in your math skills and enjoy reasoning-based math questions, then the SAT is a great option.

#4 Math Section Choices

All math questions on the ACT and most Math questions on the SAT are multiple-choice. However, ACT Math gives you five possible choices, while SAT Math gives four. This simply means that the SAT will give you a slightly higher chance of getting points from guessing. If you were to guess on an ACT Math question, you have a 20% probability of getting it right. On SAT Math, you get a 25% chance.

While we at Big Brains Education firmly believe in preparation and strongly advise against relying too much on luck, if you think you might need to guess on a few Math questions, you’ll definitely have a slight advantage if you take the SAT.

#5 Reading Section

The SAT Reading section contains five reading passages, while the ACT Reading section contains four. Also, the SAT fires questions in chronological order, while on the ACT, questions can be random.

For example, for a three-paragraph passage, the SAT will first ask a question concerning the first paragraph, and then a question about the second paragraph, and so on. On the ACT, however, questions do not progress in the order of the passage.

If Reading tests are your weakness, you might find the SAT easier since you’ll have more time to actually answer the questions. On the ACT Reading section, searching the entire passage for every single question asked is normal, and obviously, this requires time.

#6 Time Per Question

To build on the previous paragraph, note that ACT Reading will give you an average of 53 seconds to answer each question. Meanwhile, SAT Reading allows 75 seconds per question.

You’ll see a similar trend everywhere else. On the ACT English section, you will have about 36 seconds to answer each question, while the SAT allows 48 seconds. For Math, the average time allotted per question on the ACT is 60 seconds. On the SAT, calculator questions have an average allotted time of 87 seconds, and 75 seconds on non-calculator ones.

That said, if you’re really worried about time management and are easily stressed by time constraints, then you’ll definitely find the SAT much more agreeable.

#7 Essay Structure

Your success on the SAT Essay section will largely hinge on your comprehension of the source text. Meanwhile, the ACT Essay section tests how well you can evaluate and interpret the given passage.

On the SAT, you will mostly dissect the author’s message and use evidence-based reasoning to form your discussion. On the ACT, you will be asked to analyze an issue and give your own perspective on it.

So, which type of essay are you more comfortable with? Choosing between the ACT and SAT in this regard really depends on what you’re better at.

SAT vs ACT scores: Deciding Which Test Is Best for You

Now that we’ve discussed the key similarities and differences in this entire SAT vs ACT debate, it’s time to make a decision. With that, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Take official practice tests

You will be able to find official practice tests on both the SAT and the ACT. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best ways to decide between the two as you will be able to objectively compare your scores.

Here at Big Brains Education, we offer an SAT Test Prep Program and an ACT Test Prep Program—both of which have practice tests available for students.

Consider your individual strengths and weaknesses

As you can probably tell from the differences we’ve discussed above, you will be able to choose between the two tests based on which jives better with your personal strengths. Consider the subjects and specific subtopics you excel at, as well as your test-taking pace.

Check your state’s testing requirements

Some states or regions make it mandatory for all its students to take the ACT or the SAT before graduating from high school. The state-administered SAT or ACT are the standard versions of the tests and are paid-for and administered by the respective State Boards of Education. Knowing which test is required in your area will make decision-making a lot easier for you.