“Should I take the SAT or the ACT?” is one of the more frequently asked questions from students who want to study abroad, particularly in the USA or Canada. While both tests have the same purpose of measuring how ready students are for college education, each differs from the other in a variety of ways.
In this handy guide, we run through the key differences between the SAT and ACT, and we answer a bunch of FAQs about each test, all to help you make a more informed decision about which you ought to take.
Let’s get started then.
As we mentioned, the purpose of both tests is the same: To ascertain your readiness for college, there are a number of key differences between the SAT and ACT. Here are the main ones to consider:
The content of each test is pretty similar, with a few differences. The SAT has three sections on: critical reading, mathematics, and writing (i.e. English grammar & usage). While there is no dedicated science section in the SAT, the test does contain science related questions and concepts throughout.
All questions on the SAT are multiple choice, even the writing questions. There used to be an optional essay section in the SAT, but that was discontinued in 2021.
The ACT meanwhile, has four sections: English language (grammar & usage), reading, mathematics, and science. These four areas are all multiple choice just like the SAT. The ACT also has an optional essay section, but it’s not required by many colleges.
The ACT has a total of 215 questions, while the SAT has 154.
The SAT takes 3 hours while the ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes. So that’s not much of a difference… However if you take the optional ACT essay, you can add another 40 minutes on to the total time.
And about that optional essay…
It was only in 2021 that the College Board finally discontinued the SAT essay. However it’s still a feature of the ACT. So should you take the ACT essay? It’s up to you. Most colleges don’t require it, so it’s not totally necessary. However it does give you an extra method of allowing a college to assess your ability, and the majority of students who take the ACT do elect to do it.
Here’s our most simple advice on the optional ACT essay: If you’re confident in your writing ability, consider doing it. Check if the colleges you wish to go to require it, or will at least consider it in their admissions consideration.
The SAT reading section takes 65 minutes, the writing section takes 35 minutes, and math takes 80 minutes.
In the ACT, the reading test is 35 minutes, the English language test is 45 minutes, math is 60 minutes, and science is 35 minutes. As mentioned before, the optional essay is an additional 40 minutes.
In the SAT, calculators are permitted but are not allowed to be used on every single math question. In the ACT, calculators are allowed for all math questions. And those math questions are pretty important, since this is the major difference between the SAT and the ACT…
In the SAT, your math score accounts for around 50% of your total score! Meanwhile, the ACT math section accounts for just 25% of the total. So, consider your strength with numbers before deciding which test to take!
Objectively speaking, neither the SAT nor the ACT is harder than the other. It all really comes down to your ability with each skill they test. If you’re a science whizz, you may find the ACT gives you more room to impress. If you’re a math enthusiast on the other hand, perhaps you’ll feel more comfortable with the SAT.
Colleges generally don’t have a preference for either the SAT or the ACT. Even the most prestigious IVY League colleges will accept either test, so don’t worry too much about the value of one test over the other!
There are mixed opinions on this. Some believe that taking both gives you the chance to provide more information to a college about your abilities, while others argue that taking both may hinder your study schedule so much that it harms your score.
However, if you’re happy to do two exams, and can make the time to prepare accordingly for each, then why not go for it? Doing both the ACT and the SAT is becoming a more popular choice, but in all honesty, it’s totally up to you. You certainly won’t be penalized for doing only one!
The SAT is scored between 400 and 1600 points. A “good” score (that’s one that should get you into most colleges) is around 1200, while 1400 is an excellent score.
For reference, the median SAT score is 1083, so anything above that is pretty good.
The ACT is scored between 1 and 36 points. The ACT equivalent of a 1200 on the SAT is around 25 out of 36, so that’s a
The median ACT score is around 20.
The choice is your and yours alone. They’re both accepted by pretty much all colleges, and they have equal value.
And while no test is more difficult than the other on an objective level, you might find that your skills suit one more than the other. As we mentioned above, the fact that mathematics counts for 50% of the overall score in the SAT, but just 25% in the ACT should play a role in your decision.
Both tests take place 7 times a year at designated test centres, and neither can be done online. They also each cost similar amounts of money at just over US$50 (though for international students this can change from country to country).
In this case your decision could be based on where your nearest test centre is, and how much the test costs where you live!
Ultimately though, the best way to decide whether you should take the SAT or the ACT is to take a practice test in each! This is the only way to really know which one you’ll be more comfortable with, and which you’re more likely to score higher in.
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