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
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.
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.
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
- Statistics and Probability
- Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%)
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.
However, while the multiple choice section of the SAT has 4 answer choices, that on the ACT has 5 answer choices. This means, that your odds of guessing the correct answer in the SAT math section is much higher than the odds of guessing in the ACT math section.
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.
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.
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
Sources: 2018 SAT ACT concordance
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:
Garden City, NY
New York, NY
Specific schools have extended the test-free policy for 2023
Test-optional policy extended for class of 2026
Updated for class of 2026
Test-optional policy fully adopted
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 purchasing and using several of these courses such as PrepScholar, The Princeton Review, Magoosh, Prep Expert, and Kaplan to mention a few.
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
- John Hopkins