If you’re new to college applications, one of the first decisions you must make is to choose between the SAT and the ACT. Whether you’re applying to colleges in the US or any other part of the world, providing SAT or ACT scores is usually a requirement in the application process. Each standardized test, with its distinct format, sections, and types of questions, allows you to demonstrate your readiness for college-level education.

Unlike the ACT, which assesses your knowledge of the high school curriculum, the SATs your reasoning and problem-solving abilities. But which test is most suitable for your academic goals? This guide will cover the differences between ACT and SAT to help you decide which exam is best.

Continue reading to learn more about the duo in detail.

What are ACT and SAT? 

Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) 

The SAT, administered by the College Board, is a standardized exam with multiple-choice questions designed to evaluate your readiness for college. It is based on three main sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. You can also opt for an additional essay section based on the requirements of the college and program you are applying to.

The 3-hour test is evaluated on a 200 to 800-point scale per section. The score of each unit is totaled to calculate your overall SAT score, with a maximum score of 1600. The College Board suggests students guess answers they may need clarification on since the test has no negative marking.

American College Testing (ACT) 

The ACT is a standardized exam with four sections, including English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional Writing component. The nonprofit organization ACT manages the multiple-choice test, which aims to facilitate students with career success and education.

The ACT score ranges from 1 to 36 and is calculated based on the average score of each of the four sections. The Writing score is calculated separately on a scale of 2 to 12. Registrations occur online or via mail, with fees varying based on the test components and services requested.

Similarities between ACT and SAT 

At first glance, the ACT and SAT are no different from each other, especially regarding their identical composition, rights-only scoring pattern, and passage-based reading and writing questions. Plus, both tests take nearly the same time to complete: the SAT takes almost 3 hours, while the ACT is about 2 and 55 minutes long (excluding the optional essay).

Apart from the time duration, the two standardized exams revolve around the same topics, such as Comprehension, Reading, Writing, and Math, using pre-calculus and graph analysis skills. The tests feature passage-based reading and writing sections to assess individuals’ inference skills and problem-solving capabilities. You can also appear for an additional essay section on the SAT and ACT exams, which does not affect your score, but you can submit it to colleges that specifically require your essay score.

The scoring technique is similar: you don’t lose marks for incorrect or blank answers. Because it uses rights-only scoring, answering every question is best, even if you guess the answer.

Considering the similarities, both tests are acknowledged by universities without giving preference to either of the exams. However, sometimes institutes may recommend a specific test, so checking the admission requirements is ideal.

Differences between ACT and SAT 

So far, it’s evident that the ACT and SAT are renowned worldwide by universities for college admissions. They have similar formats and similar scoring patterns. But what are the differences between the ACT and SAT?

Although both tests are nearly 3 hours long, the time allocated for each section varies for both tests. For the ACT, you are forced to solve questions quickly, while SAT gives you more time to solve each question. The time constraint on the ACT increases because it features more questions than the SAT. On the ACT, you must solve four longer passages, while the SAT has five shorter ones. Despite having fewer questions, SATs require students to engage in more extensive reading and problem-solving, which requires additional time.

The scoring range varies for both tests. The ACT marks each section based on a 1-36 scale. On the SAT, however, the score range for each section is between 200-400, which means the overall score ranges from 400-1600 points.

Although both tests emphasize algebra in the math section, the ACT leans more toward geometry and trigonometry. Even with more emphasis on various math concepts, the ACT’s math score has less impact on one’s total score. That’s not the case with SATs.

You can ace both tests if you’re familiar with basic trigonometry concepts. SAT provides students with an essential math reference guide which can help students who find it challenging to memorize formulas. The ACT, however, does not offer any such guidance to students.

Test Components Reading – 65 minutes, 52 questions
Writing & Languages – 35 minutes, 44 questions
Math – two sections:
1) No-Calculator – 25 minutes, 20 questions
2) Calculator permitted – 55 minutes, 38 questions
English – 45 minutes, 75 questions
Math (Calculator permitted) – 50 minutes, 60 questions
Reading – 35 minutes, 40 questions
Science – 35 minutes, 40 questions
Writing (optional) – 40 minutes, 1 essay
Scoring 400 to 1600 scale 1 to 36 scale
Reading 5 reading passages 4 reading passages
Science None 1 science section that assesses your critical thinking abilities (not your specific science knowledge)
Math Arithmetic Algebra I & II
Geometry and Trigonometry Data
Arithmetic Algebra I & II
Geometry and Trigonometry
Statistics and Probability
Cost $60 $63 without Writing
$88 with Writing


Which Test is Right for You? 

Are you still confused about what test to take? Here’s a quiz designed to help you make the decision. Read each statement and choose whether you agree or disagree with it to help choose the right test for you based on your strengths and weaknesses.

Statement Agree Disagree
I find geometry and trigonometry complicated
I am good at solving math problems without using a calculator
Science is not my strong suit.
Analyzing something is easier for me than expressing my own opinion
I usually do well on math tests
I struggle to remember math formulas easily
I enjoy coming up with my own answers for math questions
I get stressed when there are tight time limits
I can easily find evidence to support my answers
I find it easier to follow questions that are arranged chronologically


Now, add the check marks in each column to see what your score means.

Mostly Agrees – The SAT is the right test for you

If you agreed with most or all of the statements, the SAT is the test that suits you best. With the SAT, you’ll have more time for each question, and you won’t have to deal with a difficult science section or a lot of geometry questions.

Mostly DisagreesThe ACT is the one for you

If you disagreed with most or all of the statements, you will likely prefer the ACT over the SAT. On the ACT, you won’t have to come up with your own answers for math problems, and you can express your opinions in your Writing.

Equal Agrees and Disagrees – Both tests will work 

If you marked an equal number of “Agree” and “Disagree” responses, either the ACT or SAT will be suitable for you. Unless you decide to take both tests, I suggest taking official ACT and SAT practice tests (as described in #1 above) to figure out which test format you feel more comfortable with.


Although both tests are accepted worldwide, you must decide which suits you better to achieve the best possible score. You could assess your abilities by taking mock practice exams (available on the ACT and Collegeboard websites). By exploring each question in depth, experiencing the time constraints, and familiarizing yourself with the format of the two tests, you’ll be able to estimate your potential performance on the actual test day.

We hope this article has helped determine the differences between SAT and ACT. Make sure also to check out our Scholarships Page for different information on scholarships and universities across the globe!

About the Author: Hyun Lee

Hi! I am Hyun, and I am the founder at Global Scholarships. I've received a full-tuition scholarship at Birmingham-Southern College and a $1,000 Burger King Scholarship for my undergraduate degree and was offered a fully funded scholarship consisting of tuition, living stipend, and health insurance for computer science Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University. You can read more about my scholarship journey here. If you are interested, you can follow me on Linkedin where I regularly write about scholarship opportunities.

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