ACT vs. SAT: Key differences to help you pick the best test

Which test is right for you?

You’ve juggled a lot during your time in high school: coursework, sports, extracurriculars, a social life, and sleep. On top of it all, are the dreaded college entry exams.

Colleges use the ACT and SAT exams scores for determining admissions and who gets merit-based scholarships. The tests cover similar topics and take around the same time to complete (depending on what structure you choose). But both can be expensive, high stakes (sorry, no easy option here), and take up a lot of time and brainpower. This guide will give you an overview of both exams, so you know what to expect, and can choose which one is best for you—or if you should take both.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a multiple-choice test that helps colleges understand how ready you are for college. The topics include English, Math, Science Reasoning, and an optional Essay section.

Colleges will review ACT scoring along with your GPA, extracurriculars, college essays, and letters of recommendation as they decide if you’re the right fit for them. And bonus—a great ACT score won’t just make you more appealing to schools—it can even qualify you for scholarships that will help you pay for college.

What is the SAT?

Like the ACT, the SAT is a multiple-choice test used by colleges to gauge how ready you are for college, and a high score can earn you scholarship money.

The SAT topics include Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. And if essays aren’t your thing, you’re in luck—CollegeBoard announced in 2021 that there would no longer be an optional essay section.

SAT vs. ACT: Differences in scoring, format, and timing 

While the tests have some similarities, there are some big differences between the ACT and SAT scoring, format, and timing.

What’s covered on the ACT?

  • English
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Science

What’s the ACT format?

The ACT features 215 multiple choice questions on a paper and pencil format, with an optional essay section.

What’s the ACT length?

The standard exam is 2 hours and 55 minutes long. Or 3 hours and 35 minutes long if you choose to take the optional ACT with Writing (aka the optional essay) portion of the exam.

How is the ACT scored?

The ACT is scored on a 1–36-point scale. Your composite score will be your average score on each section. You’ll also get a separate score on the ACT with Writing test if you choose to take it.

How much does the ACT cost?

The ACT costs $68 for only the exam, but $93 if the writing test is included.footnote 1

What’s covered on the SAT?

  • Reading
  • Writing & language
  • Math

What’s the SAT format?

The SAT features 154 multiple choice questions on a paper and pencil format, with no essay section.

What’s the SAT length?

The SAT is 3 hours long—or 3 hours and 15 minutes with breaks.

How is the SAT scored?

Each section is scored on a 200-to-800-point scale. Your total SAT score is the sum of your section scores. The highest possible SAT score is 1600.

How much does the SAT cost?

The SAT registration fee is $60.footnote 2

Here’s the TL;DR version: The ACT and SAT have similar timing and similar costs. But the subjects vary, along with the number of questions. The ACT has an added science section, along with an optional essay section. Meanwhile, the SAT features less questions, which can give you more time to think through your answers.

Another factor to consider is SAT scoring vs ACT scoring. The SAT allows students to Super-Score their exams. This means if you take the exam twice, you can combine your two highest scores without telling colleges about your lower scores.

How to decide which test is best for you

Still not sure which test is best for you? Here are some common questions that come up when comparing the ACT and SAT exams.

Which is harder, ACT or SAT?

Unfortunately, there’s no “easy” option to choose. Knowing which test is best for you is all about knowing yourself. Love science? There’s no science section in the SATs to show your skills, so the ACT might be better for you. Do you like to have extra time to think your answers through? The SAT has less questions, so that means more time to work through problems.

Which is better, ACT or SAT?

Again, it’s all about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. To get a better idea of which is right for you, consider taking a practice ACT test or practice SAT test.

Do colleges prefer ACT or SAT?

There’s no preference. No matter what you’ve heard, colleges use both, and don’t discriminate against either test.

The best way to decide whether the ACT or SAT exam is best for you is to know your strengths, take advantage of resources that are available to you (Does your school have an SAT study group? ACT prep help?) and to do some practice tests on your own. No matter which test you choose, remember that test scores aren’t everything, and those scores do not define you as a student. Now take a deep breath, and let’s get to studying!

footnote 1. Source: as of July 19, 2023.

footnote 2. Source: as of July 19, 2023.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey financial, tax, or legal advice. We make no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect our view or endorsement. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.

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