Skip to main content

What are the differences between the SAT and ACT?

    As you approach college applications, you may ask yourself how the SAT and ACT exams differ. Which one should you take?

    Some colleges and universities use students' SAT and ACT scores to support their admissions decisions. Both exams are created to measure a student's college readiness. Each exam provides colleges with a common data point for comparing applicants.

    Continue reading as we dive into the SAT and ACT exams and explain how the two exams differ from each other.

    What are the SAT and ACT for?

    Both exam scores are used for college admissions decisions and potentially awarding certain merit-based scholarships. For most colleges, one test isn't preferred over the other. Neither the SAT nor the ACT is known to be more challenging than the other.

    What's the SAT?

    The SAT was created in 1926, and its name and system for scoring students have changed several times since. The SAT is owned by a nonprofit organization called the College Board. Students mostly opt to take the SAT during their junior or senior year of high school (or both).

    SAT sections

    The SAT has two sections. The first section tests English skills, such as reading, writing, and language. The second section covers math questions. There may be an optional writing section for some students in particular states.

    SAT test time

    Students are allotted three hours to complete the SAT exam (65 minutes for the Reading Test, 35 minutes for the Writing and Language Test, and 80 minutes for the Math Test). If you're a student taking an optional essay section, you'll be allotted an extra 50 minutes. Most students can expect a 10-minute break and a 5-minute break during the test as well.

    SAT scoring

    Each section is scored on a 200 to 800-point scale. Your total SAT score is the sum of your section scores, with the highest possible score being 1600. If you're a student in a particular state who takes the optional essay section, that score won't be factored into your total SAT score.

    What's the ACT?

    University of Iowa Professor Everett Franklin Lindquist created the ACT. It was intended to be an alternative to the SAT. The nonprofit organization that currently administers it is also called ACT.

    ACT sections

    The ACT contains four multiple-choice sections — English, mathematics, reading, and science. There's also an optional writing section that includes one essay question.

    ACT test time

    Students are allotted two hours and 55 minutes to complete the ACT and an extra 40 minutes to complete the optional writing section. A 15-minute break will be given between the second and third sections of the test, and a 5-minute break will be given before the writing section for those choosing to complete it.

    ACT scoring

    The score range for each test section is 1 to 36. The composite score is the average of the four test scores rounded to the nearest whole number.

    How are the SAT and ACT different?

    The differences between the SAT and ACT center on the exam structures and the unique skills needed to achieve a high score on each test. These college entrance exams also have different ways of scoring and different time limits.

    The SAT includes a math section and a reading, writing, and language section. The ACT consists of these sections but also features a science component.

    While many of the sections are similar on these two tests, a significant difference between them comes down to how their sections are formatted. The SAT and the ACT both feature math sections, but the material and format differ. You can use a calculator for every math question on the ACT, making double-checking your answers a little easier.

    The SAT breaks the math portion of the test into two sections — a longer one that allows you to use a calculator and a shorter one that prohibits calculators.

    The ACT has an optional essay component, and the SAT may have an optional writing component for students in particular states. Some colleges require you to take the essay, while others don't.

    For the SAT essay, you'll read a passage before writing your essay, dissecting an author's argument using evidence and reasoning. For the ACT essay, you'll read a short excerpt about an issue and then analyze multiple perspectives. You'll also be asked to give your evaluation and opinion on the subject.

    Colleges that don't require SAT or ACT scores for admission

    How important SAT and ACT scores are in the college application process varies from school to school. Some schools don't require applicants to take the SAT or ACT. These schools have a test-optional policy, meaning that students can decide whether they want to send SAT or ACT scores when they apply.

    Other schools have a test-flexible policy, which means their admissions office does require some test scores but is open to different options in place of the SAT or ACT. Some schools waive their testing requirements under certain circumstances, like if students meet a minimum Grade Point Average (GPA) set by the school or if they're applying to a specific program. Some schools will accept other exam scores like Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or SAT Subject Test scores instead of SAT or ACT scores.

    If a school has a test-blind policy, they don't want students to send their SAT or ACT scores.

    Below are ten schools that are either test-optional, test-flexible, or test-blind:

    • Arizona State University: Test-optional
    • Baylor University: Test-optional
    • Columbia University: Test-optional
    • Elon University: Test-optional
    • George Washington University: Test-optional
    • Ithaca College: Test-optional
    • John Hopkins University: Test-optional
    • New York University: Test-flexible
    • University of California Los Angeles (UCLA): Test-blind
    • University of Chicago: Test-optional

    This is by no means a complete list of schools. We recommend checking with each school you plan to apply to so you can ensure you understand their guidelines for submitting SAT and ACT scores or other college entrance exams when you apply.

    Final thoughts

    Once you've investigated the testing requirements for the colleges you're interested in, consider taking a practice exam for each test you plan to take to help familiarize yourself with the tests.