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SAT Vs ACT – Which Test Should You Take in 2022? 

 February 1, 2022

By  Chuky Ofoegbu

The SAT and the ACT are both used for college admissions decisions. However, these standardized tests have some distinct differences.

The goal of this article is to focus on the SAT vs. ACT so that parents and students can be better informed and students can choose the right test for them.

The following sections break down some of the major differences between the SAT and ACT, as well as a few similarities. 

SAT vs ACT Differences

Timing/Format

The structure of each test and the timing is unique. There are several aspects to consider, including the total time, total number of questions, number of sections, and more. The table below summarizes the key differences between the timing and format of the SAT and ACT.

SAT

ACT

  • Total time: 180 minutes (3 hours)

  • Total # of questions: 154

  • Sections

    • Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes

    • Writing: 44 questions, 35 minutes

    • Math - No calculator: 20 questions, 25 minutes

    • Math - Calculator: 38 questions, 55 minutes

    • Essay (optional): 1 essay, 50 minutes

  • Average time per question ~ 1 min 10 seconds

  • Total time: 2 hours 55 minutes

  • Total # of questions: 215

  • Sections:

    • English: 75 questions, 45 minutes

    • Math: 60 questions, 60 minutes

    • Reading: 40 questions, 35 minutes

    • Science: 40 questions, 35 minutes

    • Writing (optional): 1 prompt, 40 minutes

  • Average time per question ~ 49 seconds


Scoring

You’ve probably noticed that the scoring system for the ACT is much different from the SAT. The ACT is scored on a 1 to 36 point scale and the SAT scores range from 400 to 1600. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the difference in how they are scored. Here are some other ways the scores differ:

  • SAT total score is the sum of the 2 section scores
  • ACT composite score is the average of the four section scores
  • SAT section scores range from 200 to 800 each
  • ACT section scores are on the same 1 to 36 point scale as the composite score
  • SAT includes Cross-Test Scores
    • Analysis in History/Social Studies
    • Analysis in Science

A couple of similarities:

  • Both tests have a separate score for the optional essay
  • Neither test has a penalty for wrong answers/guessing

If you’re looking for more information about what score to target, you can check out our articles on What is a good SAT score? and What is a good ACT score? that break down the data from the College Board and ACT inc. by year, state, school, and more.

Sources:

https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/sat-student-guide.pdf

https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/ACT-UserHandbook.pdf 

Content - Science

The actual content covered on the ACT and SAT differ, though not as significantly as many think. The biggest difference is that the ACT contains a science section. The SAT also contains science-based reading questions, but they are contained within the Reading section.

Content - Math

The content covered in the math section of the ACT and SAT, as well as the format and structure, are different. First, the SAT contains a calculator math section and a no-calculator math section, while the ACT allows the use of a calculator for the entire math section. 

The SAT lists three core areas for the math section:

  • Heart of Algebra (33%)
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis (29%)
  • Passport to Advanced Math (28%)

On the other hand, the ACT is broken down into the following math topics:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (57-60%)
    • Numbers and quantity
    • Algebra
    • Functions
    • Geometry
    • Statistics and Probability
  • Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%)
  • Modeling

Another difference between the SAT and ACT math is that the ACT math questions tend to be more straightforward, but cover a wider range of topics, while the SAT math involves more real-world application problems.

Finally, the SAT includes several grid-in answers for the math section, while the ACT math is solely multiple choice.

Total questions: 58 (20 questions on the no-calculator portion; 38 questions on the calculator portion).  45 standard multiple-choice questions.  13 student-produced response questions.  Time allotted for Math Test – No Calculator: 25 minutes; time allotted for Math Test – Calculator: 55 minutes.

Cost

One difference that people might forget about when comparing the SAT and ACT is the cost. The SAT registration fee is $55, but the College Board also lists additional add-on fees that can apply. For instance, to change the test center for your registration, the cost is $25. Additional costs for SAT registration and/or score services are listed below:

  • Cancel registration - $25
  • Cancel registration late - $35
  • Late registration - $30 (In the U.S. only)
  • Additional score reports - $12 per report
  • Rush reports - $31
  • Get scores by phone - $15 per call
  • Archived scores - $31
  • SAT Question-and-Answer Service - $16 per report
  • SAT Student Answer Service - $16 per report
  • Multiple-choice hand score verification - $55

On the other hand, the ACT registration cost is $60 (without writing) and $85 for the ACT with writing. Additionally, the ACT lists that the $25 writing test fee is refundable on written request if you are absent on test day or switch to ACT (no writing) before testing begins. Like the SAT, the ACT offers extra services for an upcharge, which are listed below:

  • Late registration - $36.00
  • Standby testing - $57.00
  • Change Fee - $40.00 includes making a test date change or test center change. 
  • Additional Score Reports - $16.00
  • Test Information Release - $30.00 during registration and $40.00 after the test

In addition, both the SAT and ACT have extra fees for international students. SAT international fees can be found here. ACT international fees can be found here.

Pros and Cons of ACT vs SAT

There are positive and negative aspects of each test, but it is all subjective, meaning that a pro for one student could be a con for someone else.

For example, if you look at the difference in timing, one student might find the faster pace of the ACT to be a con because it takes them longer to read problems.

However, for someone else, this could be a pro because they like to move through problems quickly and their attention span is shorter.

Next, one student might think that the science section is a pro for the ACT because they have a lot of science background knowledge. For someone else, it could be a con because they prefer to focus on science more in the context of reading comprehension.

Third, when it comes to the math section, the straightforward nature of the ACT Math questions could be seen as a pro to some, but others might prefer the SAT because it is geared more towards critical thinking and application, rather than complex concepts.

In the end, each student has to decide what they value in the test. They can make their own pros and cons list based on their strengths in each test and then decide which is the best fit.

SAT Score to ACT Score Conversion Calculator

You can compare composite scores from the ACT exam to an equivalent SAT score using our score conversion calculator below.

Simply enter your SAT or ACT score and the calculator will return your estimated score for the ACT or SAT test.

Conversion Calculator

ACT and SAT Conversion Calculator




Your Estimated SAT Score: 1600




Your Estimated ACT Score: 36

If you’re looking for the general relationship between the ACT and SAT scores, it might help to see the bigger picture.

The table below was adapted from the official ACT inc. 2018 conversion tables and shows each SAT score with the equivalent ACT score next to it.

Official ACT/SAT Concordance 2018 

SAT

ACT

SAT

ACT

SAT

ACT

1600

36

1250

26

910

16

*1590

36

*1240

26

900

16

1580

36

1230

26

*890

16

1570

36

1220

25

880

16

1560

35

*1210

25

870

15

1550

35

1200

25

860

15

*1540

35

1190

24

*850

15

1530

35

*1180

24

840

15

1520

34

1170

24

830

15

1510

34

1160

24

820

14

*1500

34

1150

23

810

14

1490

34

*1140

23

*800

14

1480

33

1130

23

790

14

1470

33

1120

22

780

14

*1460

33

*1110

22

770

13

1450

33

1100

22

*760

13

1440

32

1090

21

750

13

*1430

32

*1080

21

740

13

1420

32

1070

21

730

13

1410

31

1060

21

720

12

*1400

31

1050

20

*710

12

1390

31

*1040

20

700

12

1380

30

1030

20

690

12

*1370

30

1020

19

680

11

1360

30

*1010

19

*670

11

1350

29

1000

19

660

11

*1340

29

990

19

650

11

1330

29

980

18

640

10

1320

28

*970

18

*630

10

*1310

28

960

18

620

10

1300

28

950

17

610

9

1290

27

940

17

600

9

*1280

27

*930

17

*590

9

1270

27

920

17

1260

27

Sources: 2018 SAT ACT concordance

https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/ACT-SAT-Concordance-Tables.pdf 

https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/guide-2018-act-sat-concordance.pdf 

Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

This is a tough question, and the short answer is "both". Our suggestion is to first take a diagnostic test for the SAT and ACT before you start studying. Then determine which format and content feels better/easier to you and focus more of your preparation on that test to play to your strengths.

If you aren't sure, schedule both tests during your junior year and get a baseline.

Is the ACT Easier Than SAT?

By this point in the article, you might be wondering which test is easier based on all the information we provided. To be honest, this isn't a question that we can answer for you.

You need to take all the aspects of each test and decide which one plays more to your strengths. Inevitably the test that aligns with your learning style will seem “easier”.

ACT & SAT test Optional Colleges

With the onset of the coronavirus, many schools decided to go test-optional. Because many test dates were canceled due to the pandemic, colleges and universities chose to shift their focus to other aspects of a student’s application. This was the cause of the major boom in the test-optional pilot programs.

Although this means that students can apply to their dream schools without taking the SAT or ACT,  this may not be the best strategy.

Instead, students should take the tests and see where their scores land to determine which schools would be a good fit and if their scores end up being great, they can send them.

If you are looking for a complete list of test-optional schools updated for 2022, check out Fair Test. This site includes an overview of 1,815+ Accredited, 4-Year Colleges & Universities with ACT/SAT-Optional Testing Policies for Fall, 2022 Admissions.

In addition, if you’re interested in the top schools that are currently test-optional, we’ve compiled a list below with updated information for the class of 2026:

SCHOOL

LOCATION

TEST-OPTIONAL POLICY

Adelphi University

Garden City, NY

Test-optional

Boston University

Boston, MA

Test-optional

Berkeley College

Berkeley, CA

Test-free

Columbia University

New York, NY

Test-optional

Cornell University

Ithaca, NY

Specific schools have extended the test-free policy for 2023

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH

Test-optional policy extended for class of 2026

Harvard College

Cambridge, MA

Updated for class of 2026

Tufts University

Medford, MA

Test-optional policy fully adopted

University of Chicago

Chicago, IL

All applicants


Frequently Asked Questions About SAT vs ACT

Is the ACT or SAT harder?

Which is better, cake or ice cream? It might as well be the same question because the answer is the same - it depends on who you're asking. I personally thought the ACT was easier, but that is because the structure and timing were better aligned with my test-taking style.

Others think the SAT is easier because there is more time per question. Students who love science would probably tell you the ACT is easier because there is a whole section dedicated to the sciences. And a background knowledge in these subjects can really help a student achieve a high SAT score. 

Do colleges prefer SAT or ACT?

Most colleges will take either the SAT or ACT. There are specific guidelines set by colleges related to the score ranges they accept on each test. It just depends on which test you can perform better on. Therefore, many students opt to take both tests and send the result with the highest score to their target school

What is a 33 on the ACT in SAT?

According to the 2018 official concordance table, this corresponds to 1450-1480. According to our ACT to SAT calculator, if you score a 33 on the ACT, your estimated SAT score will be between 1490 and 1510. 

Is ACT more math-based?

This is a common misconception about the ACT. It is not necessarily more math-based, but the math section generally covers a wider range of topics with more advanced concepts. For a full description of the ACT math section, please refer to the ACT inc.

Is it easier to improve on the SAT or ACT?

In general, the SAT is going to be more about critical thinking and the application of concepts, meaning that students who can train themselves to think differently might have a better chance at improving their score on different sections of the exam. 

However, for someone who wants to memorize concepts, the ACT might be easier for improving their score.

Whether you choose to take the SAT or the ACT, a proven strategy for improving your scores on either test is by investing in a quality SAT or ACT prep course.

You can find our top recommendations for the best SAT prep courses and ACT prep courses on the market which we curated after an in-depth review.

What is a superscore?

Your SAT or ACT superscore is the best combination of scores from all sections of the test across multiple sessions.

Meaning, if you took the SAT and got a 700 in reading and 750 in math the first time, then took it again and got 720 in reading and 740 in math, your superscore would be the sum of the best scores 750 and 720 which is 1470.

Not all colleges and universities accept superscores from students, which is understandable because if someone takes the test 5 times and just focuses on one section each time, they could essentially get a high score to report even though each regularly summed score isn't great.

A few of the popular schools that superscore the SAT are:

  • Boston College
  • Boston University
  • Georgetown
  • Harvard
  • John Hopkins
  • MIT 
  • NYU

Chuky Ofoegbu


With almost a decade of experience pursuing higher education in the United States, I fully understand the pain points foreign students endure. I created this website to help foreign students successfully navigate their way through the challenges they will face while living in the United States.

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