SAT vs ACT2019-07-24T14:16:02+00:00

Which Test Should You Take?

Most high school juniors take the SAT or ACT to include with their college applications, and oftentimes have no idea which test they should take. Here are the most important factors to consider when deciding which test will be the best for you.

Test Length

Both tests are similar in length, and both have an optional writing section. While some universities do not require the writing section of the SAT or ACT, most “recommend” it. Since you must sit through (and pay for) the entire test in order to take the essay, it’s a good idea to complete the essay at least the first time you take the test. Click here for a list of colleges that require the essay section of the SAT and click here for a list of those that require the ACT writing section.

  • 3 hours 50 minutes (with Essay)
  • 3 hours (without Essay)
  • 3 hours 30 minutes
    (with Writing)
  • 2 hours 50 minutes
    (without Writing)


Without their respective essays, the SAT covers three categories over four sections, while the ACT covers four categories. The ACT has a science section, but does not require a comprehensive knowledge of chemistry or biology; instead, the test assesses your analytical and problem solving abilities. Though the SAT is more straightforward and in line with the high school curriculum than it used to be, the ACT is still more straightforward in the wording of its questions.

  • Critical Reading – comprehension, vocabulary in context, use of evidence
  • Writing – grammar, usage
  • Mathematics – mostly Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry, with a limited amount of Algebra II and Trigonometry. Calculator and No Calculator sections. Formula sheet provided.
  • English – writing, grammar, usage, rhetorical skills
  • Mathematics – mostly Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry, with a limited amount of Algebra II and Trigonometry. Calculator permitted on the whole test. No formula sheet.
  • Reading – comprehension
  • Science – data interpretation, analysis, problem solving

Scoring/Guessing Penalty

Colleges tend to look at the individual sections of the SAT more closely than the ACT. The SAT now divides scores into several sub-scores and cross-test scores, but it’s unclear how much colleges look at these.

For the ACT, colleges tend to focus most on the composite score. That means that even if you do poorly on one section, if you do well enough on the other sections, you can still end up with a strong composite score.

Neither the SAT nor the ACT have a guessing penalty, which means that you should guess on every question and leave no question unanswered.

  • Total – 1600
    (sum of 2 below)
  • Evidence-based Reading and Writing – 800
  • Mathematics – 800
  • Optional Essay – 3 scores of 2-8
  • Composite- 36
    (avg of 4 below)
  • English + Writing – 36
  • Math – 36
  • Reading – 36
  • Science – 36
  • Optional Writing score of 2-12

Use By Colleges

Both the SAT and ACT are accepted by all four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

Similarity to PSAT

If you are aiming for a top score in hopes of becoming a National Merit Scholar, you will need to prepare for the PSAT, which is very similar to the SAT. If, however, you had a difficult time with the PSAT, you might want to try out the ACT as an alternative.


If you have trouble finishing the test on time and do not receive an extended time accommodation, the SAT may be the better choice because it is slightly slower paced. The following chart shows the time per question for each section, which includes reading (or skimming) the passages. Even while adjusting for differences between the length and complexity of the passages and questions, you can see that the ACT is faster paced:

Equivalent Sections SAT ACT
ACT English, SAT Writing and Language 45 sec/question 30 sec/question
Reading 75 sec/question 50 sec/question
Mathematics (Calculator) 90 sec/question 60 sec/question
Mathematics (No Calculator) 75 sec/question N/A
Science N/A 50 sec/question
Optional SAT Essay / Optional ACT Writing 50 minutes 40 minutes

Extended Time Accommodation

During the SAT, students with 50% extended time can only complete one section at a time and must stay on the same timeline as the rest of the extended time group. This applies to the ACT as well, where students are provided 50% extended time per each section with a hard stop after each section. This has changed from ACT’s former self-pacing policy prior to September 2018. Click here for more information about ACT’s extended time change. Students who qualify for 100% extended time can take the SAT over two days at their school, while students who qualify for 100% extended time on the ACT can take one section per day at their school.


Both tests are similar in cost. Fee waivers are available – see eligibility requirements here: SAT | ACT

  • $64.50
    (with Essay)
  • $47.50
    (without Essay)
  • $67.00
    (with Writing)
  • $50.50
    (without Writing)


The below test dates have been confirmed by College Board and ACT. Check out our downloadable PDF here: SAT & ACT Test Dates 2019-2020 For more information (including 2019-2020 score release dates), click here for SAT or here for ACT.

Note that the July ACT test date is not available in New York or California.

  • Aug. 24, 2019
    register by July 26, 2019
  • Oct. 5, 2019
    register by Sept. 6, 2019
  • Nov. 2, 2019
    register by Oct. 3, 2019
  • Dec. 7, 2019
    register by Nov. 8, 2019
  • March 14, 2020
    register by Feb. 14, 2020
  • May 2, 2020
    register by April 3, 2020
  • June 6, 2020
    register by May 8, 2020
  • Sept. 14, 2019
    register by Aug. 16, 2019
  • Oct. 26, 2019
    register by Sept. 20, 2019
  • Dec. 14, 2019
    register by Nov. 8, 2019
  • Feb. 8, 2020
    register by Jan. 10, 2020
  • April 4, 2020
    register by Feb. 28, 2020
  • June 13, 2020
    register by May 8, 2020
  • July 18, 2020
    register by June 19, 2020

Computer-based Testing

Neither the SAT nor ACT offers a computerized version of the test for all students. The SAT only offers use of a word processor on the essay for students with a special accommodation. For eligibility requirements, click here. The ACT has a pilot program for computer-based testing that it will be expanding in the near future. For more information about ACT’s computer based testing, click here.

  • Only for students who require special accommodation
  • Select schools only


The traits listed in the chart below can help you determine which test to take, but the most effective way to determine which test is best for you is to take a full-length practice exam for both the SAT and ACT and then compare the scores. To see how one score stacks up against the other using the College Board’s official concordance tools and tables, click here.

You should take the SAT if … You should take the ACT if …
  • you prefer a slower-paced test
  • you’re planning to prepare for the PSAT anyway
  • you don’t mind less straightforward questions
  • your weaknesses include science
  • you don’t qualify for extended time
  • you prefer more straightforward questions
  • you’re a fast reader and thinker
  • your strengths include science
  • you qualify for extended time

Additional Resources

Don’t stop here! Check out our blog for new posts about how to best prepare for either test. Below are a few posts you may find useful.

Though it’s tempting to simply say you want to score “as high as possible” on your college admissions exam, a target score will help you determine how much of your limited time and energy you devote to test preparations. So how should you determine you target score? There are several factors to consider… READ MORE

You’ve probably heard the solid advice that you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to prepare for college admissions tests. But when is the right time to prep for the SAT or ACT? Here are some thoughts to consider… READ MORE

So you’ve taken a class, or even had a private tutor help you prepare for your test. Is there anything else you can do? While private tutoring remains the most efficient way to improve your score… READ MORE