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Most colleges accept scores from either test, so you can take the test that’s right for you. Your college application journey is likely starting with the question, “Which test should I take?” Use this handy guide to help you decide:

Table of Contents

  • SAT vs. ACT Format and Timing
  • SAT vs. ACT Scoring
  • Score Equivalence Chart: ACT Composite Score vs. SAT Total Score
  • SAT vs. ACT Content
  • SAT vs. ACT Comparison Frequently Asked Questions
  • SAT vs. ACT Costs

SAT vs. ACT Format and Timing Breakdown

Understanding the timing breakdown of the SAT and ACT will help you practice under realistic testing conditions and know what to expect on test day. Both the ACT and SAT are long tests, and to succeed at either you’ll need to build endurance and learn to answer questions quickly. 

SAT Timing Breakdown

SAT Section

Number of Questions

Time Allotted

Reading

52 questions

65 minutes

Break

10 minutes

Writing and Language

44 questions

35 minutes

Math–No Calculator

20 questions

25 minutes

Break

5 minutes

Math–Calculator

38 questions

55 minutes

Break*

2 minutes

Essay*

1 essay

50 minutes

Total without Essay

195 minutes

Total with Essay

247 minutes

ACT Timing Breakdown

ACT Section

Number of Questions

Time Allotted

English

75 questions

45 minutes

Mathematics

60 questions

60 minutes

Break

10 minutes

Reading

40 questions

35 minutes

Science

40 questions

35 minutes

Break*

5 minutes

Writing*

1 essay

40 minutes

Total without Writing

185 minutes

Total with Writing

230 minutes

*Since the essay and writing section of the SAT/ACT is optional, you will only complete these sections and their preceding breaks if you opted in during registration.

SAT vs. ACT Scoring

Scoring on the SAT and ACT are very different. Understanding how your scores are calculated and how to use your scores can help you make the most out of your test prep, and ultimately get a better SAT or ACT score.

Scoring

ACT

SAT

Score

You will receive a composite score on a 1–36 scale. This score is an average of your scores on the 4 multiple-choice test sections (each section is scored on 1–36 scale).

The optional Writing Test is not included in the composite score. You will receive 5 scores for the Writing Test: one overall score on a 2–12 scale and 4 domain scores, also 2–12, that are based on an analytic scoring rubric.

You will receive an overall score out of 1600. This score is calculated by adding your score on the Math section with your score on the Evidence-Based Reading & Writing section (each section is scored on a 200–800 scale).

The optional Essay is not included in the overall score. You will receive 3 scores for the essay: Reading, Analysis, and Writing, which are all on 2–8 scale.

Wrong Answer Penalty

No penalty for wrong answers.

No penalty for wrong answers.

Sending Score History to Colleges

You can decide which score is sent to colleges. Note: all scores from your selected test date are sent.

You can decide which score is sent to colleges. Note: all scores from your selected test date are sent.

Score Equivalence Chart: ACT Composite Score vs. SAT Total Score

Although ACT and SAT scores aren’t perfectly comparable, since the tests have slightly different sections, knowing your score on one can give you an idea of how you’d score on the other. ACT provides the ACT Composite Score vs. SAT Total Score conversion chart below, as well as an SAT Total Score vs. ACT Composite Score chart on their website.

ACT Composite Score

SAT Total Score Range

36

1570-1600

35

1530-1560

34

1490-1520

33

1450-1480

32

1420-1440

31

1390-1410

30

1360-1380

29

1330-1350

28

1300-1320

27

1260-1290

26

1230-1250

25

1200-1220

24

1160-1190

23

1130-1150

22

1100-1120

21

1060-1090

20

1030-1050

19

990-1020

18

960-980

17

920-950

16

880-910

15

830-870

14

780-820

13

730-770

12

690-720

11

650-680

10

620-640

9

590-610

SAT vs. ACT Content Breakdown

The two tests might look similar on paper, but there are some key content differences to keep in mind as you decide which test to take.

Topics Covered

ACT

SAT

Reading

Key Ideas and Details
Craft and Structure
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

Command of Evidence
Words in Context
Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

Math

Preparing for Higher Math:

  • Number and Quantity
  • Algebra
  • Functions
  • Geometry
  • Statistics and Probability

Integrating Essential Skills
Modeling

Heart of Algebra
Problem Solving and Data Analysis
Passport to Advanced Math
Additional Topics in Math

Science

Interpretation of Data
Scientific Investigation
Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results

Science content is not tested on the SAT, but the test does measure your ability to interpret charts, infographics, and data on scientific topics in other sections.

A Science Insight Score, based on these abilities, is provided.

English/Writing and Language

Production of Writing
Knowledge of Language
Conventions of English

Optional Writing Test (essay)

Command of Evidence
Words in Context
Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science
Expression of Ideas

Optional Essay

Essay

Optional final section, 40 minute testing time

Separate score, not included in composite score

Topic presents conversations around contemporary issues

Tests ability to argue a point of view in a clear way, using concrete examples

Optional final section
50 minute testing time
Separate score, not included in overall score
Topic comes from a 750-word passage to be read on test day
Tests reading, analysis, and writing skills

SAT vs. ACT Comparison Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the ACT or SAT harder?

    Neither test is harder than the other. However, depending on where your individual strengths lie, you might be naturally suited to one exam over the other. The ACT has a Science section that the SAT does not, and the SAT has a No-Calculator Math section that the ACT does not. The SAT allows for slightly more time per question than the ACT, but the questions also require more logical thinking, thus necessitating that extra time. The ACT tests more math topics than the SAT, such as matrices and logarithms, but the questions are more straightforward than those you’ll find on the SAT. The differences between exams are fairly balanced, so you should take practice exams to determine in which test your strengths lie. 

  • Do colleges prefer the SAT or ACT?

    No. All universities that accept standardized test scores accept both the SAT and ACT. You can look up admissions statistics of previous freshman classes at the universities you’re interested in to see what percentage of incoming students took the SAT vs. ACT and use that information to decide which test you take, but as a general rule, universities have no preference for one exam over the other. 

  • What is the difference between the ACT and SAT?

    Although there is much in common between the ACT and SAT, there are a few significant differences to keep in mind while choosing which test to take and beginning your studies. 

    Each has one section that the other does not: the SAT has a No-Calculator Math section, while the ACT has a Science section. Despite the absence of a No-Calculator Math section, the ACT tests on a wider variety of math subjects than does the SAT, such as matrices, logarithms, and graphs of trigonometric functions. You’ll also see significantly more geometry on the ACT than you will on the SAT. 

    The essay prompts are also slightly different: the ACT will require you to analyze different perspectives, including your own, on a particular subject noted in the prompt. The SAT will ask you to read a passage and analyze the author’s argument. 

    The SAT allows for slightly more time per question than the ACT, but SAT questions require more logical thinking than do those on the ACT. Additional timing information can be found in the timing breakdown table above. 

    Lastly, the SAT and ACT are scored differently: the SAT from 400-1600, and the ACT from 1-36. Learn more about SAT vs. ACT scoring from the score equivalence chart above. 

  • Is it worth taking both the SAT and ACT?

    If you have the time and resources, it’s not a bad idea to take both the SAT and ACT. Because of differences in content and strategy between the two tests, you may score better on one than the other.

  • Should I take the SAT/ACT Writing Test?

    Although the Essay portion is optional on both the SAT and ACT, it’s highly recommended that you complete it anyway. Some schools don’t require the essay as part of your application, but many do, and completing the SAT/ACT essay will open up more options for you.  

SAT vs. ACT Cost Breakdown

The SAT and ACT are comparable in price. Learn about each exam’s price breakdown below.

Type of Fee

SAT

ACT

Registration (without Essay)

$52

$55

Registration (with Essay)

$68

$70

Test Option Change Fee (from Essay to No Essay or vice versa)

$0 from Essay to No Essay, $16 from No Essay to Essay

$0 from Writing to No Writing (Writing fee refundable upon request), $15 from No Essay to Essay

Late Registration

$30

$35

Change Fee (Includes Test Date or Test Center changes)

$30

$35

Waitlist/Standby Fee (Charged only if admitted to the test center on test day)

$53

$56

First 4 Score Reports

$0

$0

Additional Score Reports

$12 each

$13 each