Long ago, the answer may have simply depended on the colleges you were applying to and their geographic location. Schools on the coasts were generally understood to gravitate toward the SAT®, while those in the Midwest preferred the ACT.
Over time, however, the college application landscape has changed. Schools have grown increasingly flexible, and both tests have now become widely accepted across all U.S. colleges.
This greater level of personal choice can lead to higher levels of anxiety. As Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the director of admissions at Harvard College said, “Since it’s a choice you can make, it has the feeling of being a significant choice, fraught with implication ... ”.
When it comes down to final decisions, the SAT or ACT question doesn’t have to keep you up at night. Understand the basics for each test, understand your own strengths and weaknesses as a test taker, and let the prep work begin!
SAT or ACT: At a Glance
|Widely accepted||All U.S. colleges||All U.S. colleges|
|Measures||What students learn in high school
What students need to succeed in college
|What students learn in high school|
|Tests the vocabulary you’ll use||Yes||Yes|
|Everyday math formulas provided||Yes||No|
|Essay is optional||Yes||Yes|
|Penalty for guessing||No||No|
Scores for both tests are accepted by colleges across the United States. Be sure, however, to look carefully at admission preferences and requirements (including scholarships), especially as they relate to highly selective programs.
While both tests are designed to measure what you learned in high school, the SAT is a better indicator of skills you’ll actually need to succeed in college and your career.
Rather than focusing on how well you can recall information, the SAT emphasizes your ability to apply it in real-world scenarios. This is one of the reasons why you’ll find everyday math formulas provided during the SAT test, whereas the ACT expects you to pull them from memory.
SAT or ACT: Timing and Flexibility
Deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT is a decision that should be made sooner rather than later, not only to give yourself enough time to practice and prepare, but also so you can register for a test date before the college application deadlines.
Both the SAT and ACT offer seven Saturday test dates a year. In terms of registration for each, SAT sign-ups close about four weeks before each test date, while sign-ups for the ACT close even sooner at about five weeks out. Late registration ends 11 days before testing for the SAT, as compared to 20 days before testing for the ACT.
When it comes to signing up last-minute, the SAT provides greater flexibility. Late registration fees are covered for fee waiver–eligible students. The ACT does not include late fees as part of those waivers.
SAT or ACT: Test Format
Knowing what to expect on test day for both the SAT and ACT is a great way to determine which one will work best for you. For example, if you prefer ample time for answering questions, the SAT may be more your speed. If your interests lean heavily toward science, the ACT may pique your interest with their science-specific section. The SAT doesn’t ignore science content; instead, it’s incorporated throughout the entire test.
|Structure and Timing||SAT||ACT|
|Testing time||3 hours
+ 50-minute essay (optional)
|2 hours 55 minutes
+ 40-minute essay (optional)
|Structure||3 tests + optional essay||4 tests + optional writing test|
|Number of questions||154||215|
|Number of breaks||3||2|
|Time per question||1 minute, 10 seconds||49 seconds|
|Score range||Composite 400–1600 (SAT Essay: reported in 3 dimensions, each 2–8)||Composite 1–36 (writing domain scores: 2–12)|
|Test length and timing||
Testing for the SAT takes place during a 3-hour time window with an additional 50-minute essay portion, which is optional. The sections are broken down into a Reading Test with 52 questions, a Writing and Language Test with 44 questions, and a Math Test with 58 questions.
Testing for the ACT takes place during roughly the same amount of time with an additional 40-minute essay portion made optional. The sections are broken down by a Reading Test with 40 questions, an English Test with 75 questions, a Math Test with 60 questions, and a Science Test with 40 questions.
The SAT Math Test includes fewer questions than the ACT Math Test. You also have more time to complete the SAT Math Test, which gives you more time to answer each question. Rather than one long test, the SAT Math Test is divided into two parts so that you can take a break (and extra breather) in between!
With the SAT having a total of 154 multiple-choice questions and the ACT having 215, timing is worth considering for each of these major tests. Based on their individual time windows, this leaves 1 minute and 10 seconds for answering each question on the SAT. For the ACT, you’ll have about 49 seconds per question.
Reference our Test Day Checklist and be prepared to tackle those SAT questions with ease.
SAT scores are a composite ranging from 400–1600. Subscores and cross-test scores for the different sections can help you to best determine your strengths and weaknesses. There is no such thing as a passing score and colleges consider many other factors in addition to your SAT score when reviewing applicants.
For the ACT, scores are a composite ranging from 1–36. Writing domain scores for the optional essay portion are given on a scale of 2–12.
Neither test penalizes test takers for guessing because neither test penalizes for incorrect answers. This is why it’s always best to mark an answer, even if you’re unsure, rather than to leave it blank. Both the SAT and the ACT provide four score reports that can then be submitted alongside college applications.
Want to compare your SAT score to your ACT? Here’s some advice for comparing scores.
SAT or ACT: Better Takes Practice
Knowing how soon you’ll be taking the SAT or ACT will help you prepare. After all, you wouldn’t run a marathon without building up your endurance beforehand, would you? Test prep is a similar concept.
You’ll need to become familiar enough with your exam of choice in order to best estimate where your strengths and weaknesses may lie. Once you’ve done so, you can begin to focus on the areas you’ll need to improve before test day. With a limited amount of time for answering each question, you’ll want to learn how to pace yourself accordingly and to guess only when time demands that you move on.
Free Test Prep Tools
In order to feel your best on test day, it’s important to spend time preparing. You’ll need to build a study schedule and stick to it. Practice will help you build the skills you need for the test and give you an idea of what the test will be like.
Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy provides free, personalized content such as interactive problems, video lessons, and study plans custom-built to suit your practice needs. A final full-length practice test right before test day is a good idea. It’s a proven way to see how you’ll do on the real exam. Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy provides eight free full-length practice tests.
ACT Academy provides only one free full-length practice test, as well as a series of subject quizzes that help you hone in on practice areas.
SAT or ACT: Which Test Is Best for You?
The hardest question on your college journey shouldn’t be whether to take the SAT or the ACT. Both are applicable depending on your individual needs and preferences as a test taker and as a future college student. In weighing the differences between each test, make sure you ask yourself questions like: Do you understand the format, timing, and content of each test? How are they different? With this knowledge, you can decide which one is the best fit for you.
Perhaps most important, dedicate the time upfront to understanding yourself as a test taker. Neglecting to properly prepare for test day will leave you at a disadvantage, regardless of which test you choose to take. Even if you spend just 10 minutes a day on sample questions, you’ll find yourself in a much better position than if you do nothing at all.
Don’t get caught off guard. For additional support and information about the SAT and more, visit the College Board website.