A note from the author, Paweł Dąbrowski, PhD, education expert with 10+ years of experience. He publishes his work in many prestigious media outlets and academic publications focused on education:
Standardized tests have become part and parcel of academic life. While it is not always a requirement for college admissions, SAT and ACT tests may have an impact on your application. But before you take them, it is important to understand their differences so that you can better prepare yourself for these tests. First and foremost, one is not better than the other nor is more preferred by college admission officers (Pittman, O., June 2020). Another thing that you will realize when scanning through the differences between the ACT and the SAT is that they are more similar than different.
Standardized high-stakes achievement tests often present a very structured format, with strict time limits, a component of speededness, a large number of items, often of multiple-choice character, and consequences attached to the test result (Stenlund et al., 2018). You will find both the ACT and SAT not veering away from this format.
But there are subtle differences between the two college admission tests. This article aims to help you weigh which test to take when taking both is not an option.
Both the ACT and the SAT have math, reading and writing subjects, an optional essay section and both follow rights-only scoring, that is, there is no penalty for wrong answers. And although there used to be a stark divide between ACT and SAT takers by region—generally, more students take SAT in the east and west coasts and more take ACT in the midwest (The New York Times, August 2013)—that line has started to blur (StudyUSA.com, November 2016). In 2019, 2.2 million students took the SAT while 1.8 million completed the ACT, a 10% difference. The silver lining is, a significant number of students took both tests (Moody, J., June 2020).
Source: The Princeton Review, 2017
Still, as college admission test scores have an impact on the chances of putting one’s foot onto the campus of a preferred higher learning institution, with 88% of four-year colleges and universities placing moderate or considerable importance on them (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2015 cited in Appelrouth & Zabrucky, 2017), whatever perceived advantage you may think you can get from one test over the other is always a good mind leverage if only to optimize your test score.
The key differences in content between the ACT and the SAT lie in the fact that there is no Science in the SAT and the range of Math topics is broader in the ACT. Subtle variations in their approach to assessment per section also exist, as detailed below.
|Type of Institution||Average Annual Cost of Degree|
|Public 2-year in-state institution||$50,880|
|Public 4-year in-state institution||$87,800|
|Public 4-year out-of -state institution||$153,320|
Both the ACT and the SAT use passage-based format to assess the students’ English language skills, how they understand, process and use information. In both tests, this section is divided between conventions, which include grammar, usage and punctuation, and expression, which tackle style, organization and effective language use. However, is a difference between SAT and ACT when it comes to focus and format among other things.
Differences in English/Writing & Language tests:
When it comes to Math, two differences between the college admission tests are visibly noticeable: the use of calculator and topic range.
Differences in Math tests:
The similarities between SAT and ACT Reading end with their usage of passages and references to literature, fiction, social sciences, and science, plus the fact that both tests pepper the section with main idea questions. At a glance, both Reading sections look alike—until one delves into the details. To prepare for this, it may be ideal to check out this guide to improving your college reading skills.
Differences in Reading tests:
Many are asking if is there science on the SAT. The answer to this "does SAT have science" question is no. And this is the most obvious difference between SAT vs ACT. But it does not mean it leaves the subject out in the cold, as you will see below.
Differences in Science tests:
Both the ACT and SAT have an optional essay section that students can take to demonstrate their college readiness. The score in the essay though will not be taken into account in the student’s overall admissibility. Nevertheless, it does add another dimension to one’s skill level. The main difference between the SAT and ACT in this section is in the essay’s approach, as discussed in detail below:
Differences in Essay tests:
Source: Business Insider (2018)
The SAT and the ACT use a similar scoring approach but with different constructs. Both determine a composite score (the overall score) from the individual scores the student merited in each section.
On the ACT, composite scoring is split among four sections and then averaged: English, mathematics, reading, and science. On the other hand, the SAT bases the composite score between two sections: reading/writing and math. Essay scoring is treated separately in both tests.
The highest composite score on the ACT is 36, which averages the scale scores per section that individually cap at 36, too. While on the SAT, composite scoring tops at 800 per section or 1600 in total.
The SAT allows you a longer time to answer the questions across subjects except in Writing and Language (English in the ACT). Not just that, the SAT has fewer questions except in Reading, which further extends the time limit per section.
On average, you have 50 seconds per question in the ACT compared with 1 minute and 10 seconds in the SAT (act.org, collegeboard.org, n.d.). If a 20-second time difference matters to you, then timing may play a role in your decision to prefer SAT over the ACT. Likewise, with the optional essay, the SAT allows 10 minutes more than the ACT. The time margin may not appear significant, but taken as a whole, both tests clock in at three hours apiece without the writing part but with Science crammed in the ACT. The difficulty of questions aside, you have more items to answer with less time in the ACT.
Time Allowance per Question
|"body of an essay"||The structure of an essay is compared to that of human anatomy, where the body is the main part.|
|"go belly up"||This metaphor is in reference to the act of a fish turning belly up and floating to the surface of water when it dies.|
|"time is running out"||The metaphor originally referred to the sand in an hourglass running from the top bulb to the bottom.|
|"can't hold a candle"||The original context of this metaphor involved apprentices tasked to hold candles while their masters worked. Apprentices who are not deemed worthy to hold candles for their masters are clearly not in the same league.|
As of the school year 2019-2020, the ACT costs $5.50 more than the SAT for the full test without the essay portion. The difference is the same inclusive of the essay. Here are the details:
|Type of institution||Tuition + Fees||Room + Board||Average Total cost|
|Public 2-year in-state institution||$3,730||$8,990||$12,720|
|Public 4-year in-state institution||$10,440||$11,510||$21,950|
|Public 4-year out-of -state institution||$26,820||$11,510||$38,330|
|Private nonprofit 4-year institution||$36,880||$12,990||$49,879|
The differences between the ACT and the SAT in mind beg the question—is it recommended to take both tests? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because taking both tests allows the student to show more competency information to the admission office, especially for higher scores. Taking both tests also gives the student more options to choose from the top 100 student scholarships or grants that require one type of test over the other.
On the other hand, and critically, both tests will cut into one’s study time, spreading it thinner as opposed to focusing on one test alone. Some may say it is like sitting in between two chairs resulting in a less stable situation. But the decision is best left to the student who should weigh the pros and cons of both strategies. An alternative to picking between SAT vs ACT may be to take both the preparatory tests—PSAT and PreACT—and decide which test plays to one’s strengths.