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SAT vs ACT: What’s the Difference?

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Students who are starting the exciting journey of planning for their college careers often begin the process by preparing to take either the ACT or the SAT. 

The ACT and SAT are both nationally-accepted standardized tests that colleges utilize when evaluating applicants. While there are a few test-optional schools out there that don’t require students to take the ACT/SAT, the vast majority of universities do. 

Students only need to complete one of these exams and, while the two tests are quite alike in nature, there are a few differences that may make one more appealing than the other, depending on the person. 

If you’re a teenager trying to decide which test is right for you, or a parent who is trying to help your student make that decision, here are the main ways that the two exams differ: 

SAT vs. ACT Scoring

The SAT is based on a score of 400-1600, and the test is scored based on two sections: an evidence-based reading and writing section and a math section. Students will earn a score between 200-800 for each section. There is also an optional essay section, but that is scored separately. 

The ACT is scored from 1-36, and the exam is broken up into four sections: reading, writing, math and science. Students will be given a score of 1-36 for each section and the final score is determined by finding the average of the four sections. Like the SAT, there is also an optional written exam students can take. 

SAT vs. ACT Questions and Exam Time

The SAT is three hours long with a total of 154 questions. The optional essay portion is an extra 50 minutes long. 

The questions and time are divided into the following categories:

  • A 65-minute reading section with 52 questions
  • A 35-minute writing and language section with 44 questions
  • A 25-minute math section with 20 questions (no calculator)  
  • A 55-minute math section with 38 questions (with calculator)
  • An optional 50-minute essay section 

The difference between the two math sections is that you are able to use a calculator for the 55-minute section, but you’re not allowed to for the 25-minute part. 

As for the ACT, the test is 2 hours and 55 minutes long with 215 questions. The essay section is an additional 40 minutes. The exam is broken into these main sections:

  • A 45-minute English section comprised of 75 questions
  • A 60-minute math section comprised of 60 questions
  • A 35-minute reading section comprised of 40 questions
  • A 35-minute science section comprised of 40 questions 
  • An optional 40-minute essay section 

Students are able to use calculators for the entire math portion. And the science section is not really science; it is data analysis using charts and graphs.

SAT vs. ACT Cost 

When it comes to costs, the two tests are priced fairly similarly, though the ACT is slightly more expensive. 

The prices usually increase slightly from year to year, but for the 2019-2020 school year, the SAT costs $49.50 for the standard exam or $64.50 with the written portion included. 

The ACT costs $52.00 on its own or $68.00 with the essay exam. 

There can be additional fees for students who register after the normal registration period has ended. 

However, for students and families who can’t afford these fees, there are situations where a fee waiver may be possible.  Additionally, if your state requires high school students to take either the ACT or SAT, the state often covers the fees. 

Which Test Is Right For You?

Now that you understand how the tests differ structurally, it’s easier to determine which test may be right for you. Here are a few things to consider:


For students who require more time to settle into a test, the SAT is often preferable, as it has fewer questions and a slightly longer testing time. 

On average, students will have slightly over one minute per question on the SAT, while having less than one minute per question on the ACT. This extra time can be especially useful for slower readers who require a bit more time to fully comprehend questions, passages and instructions.

Confidence with Subject Matter  

It’s also helpful to consider which subject matter you feel the most comfortable with. While the tests aren’t radically different in the areas they’re measuring proficiency for, they do vary slightly in how they weigh certain subjects. 

For students who struggle in general with math, the ACT may be more appealing. When it comes to the ACT, students are allowed to use calculators throughout the whole math section.  Additionally, the ACT score is based on four sections, while the SAT score is based on only two sections, one of them being math. Because of this, your math score for the SAT would play a larger role in determining your final exam score than with the ACT. 

Another point to consider is that the ACT is comprised of all multiple choice questions, whereas there are several questions on the SAT math section that require you to fill in the answers. If your test-taking strategies work more favorably with multiple choice, then the ACT may be a better option. 

Both the ACT and SAT have many questions that relate to your ability to analyze and comprehend passages, data and research. Since the ACT’s remaining three sections will be scored from these skills, the SAT may be a better fit if you find it difficult to review, understand and interpret this kind of information. 

State Requirements

Some states require high school students to take the ACT, while others require the SAT. In Colorado, the SAT is mandatory. 

If your state does mandate one exam over the other, you aren’t faced with the dilemma of which one you should choose. That being said, you can still opt to take both. While it may seem like quite a bit of work, you may score significantly better on one over the other, and you are only required to send one of your scores to colleges. If the SAT was mandated but you scored better on the ACT, it would be beneficial to send in your higher score. 

ACT and SAT Practice Exams

Another solid way to gauge which test may be more suited for you is to take an ACT and SAT practice test. Especially if you take full-length proctored practice exams, you’ll be able to experience how the actual tests will function, which will help you establish a baseline of where you’re starting from before prepping for one or both exams.

Closing Up

When it really comes down to it, the SAT and ACT are looking to test your competency in similar areas, but there are some subtle differences that may allow one test to better showcase your specific strengths. 

While the SAT is the required exam in the state of Colorado, many students take both tests to ensure they can send their most impressive scores to the colleges they’re vying to attend. The more that you’re aware of how these tests work as well as what your own strengths and weaknesses are, you should have no issue determining which test option would speak the loudest on your behalf. 

CollegeDrive Offers Quality SAT/ACT Test Prep and Practice Exams in Colorado 

Preparing to take a college entrance exam can be a daunting experience, but it doesn’t have to be. CollegeDrive offers a variety of SAT and ACT test prep options that work to thoroughly coach and prepare students, helping them enter into their exams with a sense of confidence and readiness. 

Whether you’re looking to take a free, proctored practice exam, find a one-on-one tutor, or enroll in a full classroom course, CollegeDrive can help you with all of your test prep needs. 

To find out which course is the best option for your unique goals, contact us today for more information, or take our free test quiz!

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