ACT® Vs. SAT® Test: What’s the Difference?

By Emily Brehe-Gunter

For someone new to the college admissions process, comparing the SAT® vs. ACT® tests can be like comparing apples to oranges. At a glance, the two seem very similar, but once you break down the tests further, you’ll notice a few important differences.

Both of these tests are widely accepted for scholarship consideration and college admissions at most colleges in the U.S. This means a college won’t give preference for one test over the other.

When preparing for upcoming tests, it’s important to know what to expect from both versions of college admissions tests, especially in terms of format, content, and timing. In this post, we’ll go over 20 key differences between the ACT and SAT tests and how to decide which one is right for you.

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20 Differences Between the ACT and SAT Tests

1. Different Administering Organizations

The SAT test is owned and administered by the College Board, a nonprofit organization made up of elite northeastern colleges. The organization was founded in 1899, and it also owns and administers the PSAT, AP®, and CLEP® exams, among many other college admissions tools.

The ACT test is owned by ACT, Inc., an Iowa-based organization that was founded in 1959. Like College Board, the ACT nonprofit also heads up many other projects and programs, including the PreACT test, The Official ACT Prep Guide publication, and many others.

2. The SAT Test Has Been Around Longer

The SAT test was first created in 1926. At that time, many universities had their own versions of aptitude and IQ tests that were used for admission and scholarship consideration.

After World War II, the SAT test became more popular as the demand for standardized tests rapidly increased. This change in demand was a result of large numbers of veterans attending college through the G.I. Bill.

Over the years, the SAT test has undergone various revisions and major changes. For example, in 2021, College Board announced that it would discontinue the optional essay and SAT Subject Tests. In the spring of 2024, the test will go digital (see point 10 below).

The ACT test didn’t enter the market until 1959. In the beginning, the ACT test was quite different from the SAT test, but over the past 60+ years, the tests have evolved to become very similar.

Today, colleges rely on ACT or SAT scores to help them make admissions decisions. So, if you plan to apply to college in the U.S., you will likely sign up for these tests.

3. Popularity Varies By State

Depending on where you live, your school district may put more emphasis on one test over the other. For example, the SAT test tends to be more popular in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, as well as in densely populated states like California, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, and Florida. The ACT test is more popular in the Midwest and southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

act vs sat test popularity

Of course, even in states where one test reigns supreme, students still take the other test. In 2022, 64% of test-takers in Texas took the SAT test, while 22% took the ACT test.

In 2012, the ACT test was more popular than the SAT test among high school students for the first time in history. In 2018, the SAT test reclaimed the majority, but the ACT test remains almost as popular.

Of the national graduating class of 2022, about 1.3 million students took the ACT test, while 1.7 million students took the SAT test. When the graduating class of 2023 took the tests, the SAT test pulled out in front a bit further. About 1.9 million students took the SAT test, while roughly 1.4 million students took the ACT test.

It’s important to note that both the ACT and SAT tests are available in all 50 states, regardless of their popularity from state to state. We recommend visiting the tests’ websites to find a testing center near you.

4. Testing Requirements For Graduation Vary By State

Did you know that some states require high school students to take the ACT or SAT test (or a similar exam) to determine graduation eligibility? Often, these states offer the ACT or SAT tests in replacement of state-wide assessments like Smarter Balanced.

In 2015, the U.S. federal government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a law requiring that all states offer annual assessments to better measure overall student performance. As of January 2024, nearly half of states within the U.S. have turned to the ACT/SAT tests to help fulfill this requirement.

Offering the ACT/SAT tests in replacement of additional state assessments aims to alleviate testing pressures felt by high school students, many of whom already plan to take the SAT or ACT to maximize college admissions odds.

There are a few states that offer families the ability to opt out of a testing requirement or offer exemptions. To choose the best path, families should research their state’s assessment guidelines. Keep in mind that each high school may have its own graduation requirements that differ from a state’s minimum requirements.

Even if your state doesn’t require a particular test, your school district may have its own testing requirements. Be sure to review your high school’s graduation requirements to determine which test you may have to take.

States That Require the SAT Test

A total of seven states require that all 11th grade students take the SAT test.

Illinois, Michigan, and New Hampshire require 11th graders to take the SAT test with essay.

Some states also require specific versions of the PSAT test, the practice examination for the SAT test, to meet requirements for younger grade levels. In Illinois, students must also take the PSAT 8/9 test in 9th grade and the PSAT 10 test in 10th grade. In Michigan, students must also take the PSAT 8/9 exam in 8th grade.

Michigan requires 11th grade students to also take the ACT Workkeys test in addition to the SAT test with essay.

Rhode Island also requires all 10th grade students to participate in the PSAT 10 test administration.

States That Require the ACT Test

The states listed below require that all students in 11th grade take the ACT test as the state assessment.

The state assessments for Arizona, Alabama, Hawaii, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Wyoming include the essay portion of the test.

Arizona also requires the ACT Aspire test as its 9th grade state assessment.

North Carolina requires all eligible 10th graders take the PreACT test.

States That Require Either the ACT or SAT Tests

In some states, students can choose to take the ACT test to meet the graduation requirement in place of state exams or ACT WorkKeys.

5. Score Reporting: Different Score Ranges

Both tests follow different scoring scales. SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 points, whereas ACT composite scores range from 1 to 36 points.

SAT section scores range from 200-800 points. The test consists of two main sections, and scores from these two sections are combined to come up with the total score. Learn more about what makes a good SAT test score.

ACT section scores range from 1-36. The “composite” score (or overall score) is the average of the four test section scores and is graded on the same scale of 1-36. Learn more about what makes a good ACT test score.

act vs sat score conversion

6. Test Formats: Different Sections in the Tests

The ACT and SAT test sections are similar in content, but there are some differences in the order of the sections and the style of questions.

Note that one of the most significant changes to the SAT test in recent years has been the switch to a new format. Starting in 2024, the SAT test format will be:

SAT Test Sections

  • Reading and Writing
  • Math (with calculator)

ACT Test Sections

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Writing (optional essay)

No two test sections are exactly the same—even if the sections appear to cover the same core subjects or areas of expertise.

The SAT Reading and Writing section is the equivalent of the ACT Reading and English sections and tests a student’s reading comprehension, rhetoric, and language use skills. In these sections, students will:

  • Answer multiple choice questions based on information found in reading passages
  • Analyze the structure and craft of reading passages
  • Revise passages to enhance the rhetorical expression of ideas
  • Edit passages to conform to proper grammar

Questions on the SAT Math section will be similar to what you see on the ACT Math section, but there are a few important differences that we describe in point 9 below.

It’s important to note that SAT Math accounts for 50% of the total test score, while the ACT Math section only accounts for 25% of the overall test score.

One of the most noticeable differences between test sections is that the ACT test includes a science section, and the SAT test does not. We describe this difference more in point 11 below.

7. ACT Reading Passages Are Longer

Typically, an ACT Reading passage consists of about 750 words, while reading passages on the digital SAT test are a maximum of 150 words. This makes it sound like it takes more time to go through a passage and answer all the related questions on the ACT test, but that is not necessarily true.

David Dernier is the Vice President of Verbal Curriculum Development at KD College Prep. We asked him to explain the small nuances between the two sections.

“The SAT test might feature shorter passages, but students have to get through 52 unique topics to complete the Reading and Writing section. The ACT test, with its long-form passages, features just nine topics across the English and Reading sections. For students who have a difficult time switching to new tasks, the ACT’s format might be preferrable,” David says.

There are some differences regarding the types of reading passages you’ll encounter on the tests. The new digital SAT test includes:

  • Excerpts from prose fiction, plays, or poetry
  • Excerpts from essays, speeches, etc.
  • Summaries of historical events or figures
  • Summaries of recent discoveries or controversies in scientific fields
  • Discussions of authors, artists, or other contemporary figures or phenomena
  • Text paired with an informational graphic or table
  • Lists of facts from the field of history, humanities, or natural science

The ACT test includes reading passages that are either informational or literary narrative, such as:

  • An excerpt from a novel, short story, essay, or memoir
  • An article on a social science topic
  • A humanities-focused passage, such as one exploring a cultural phenomenon
  • An article that explores a discovery or phenomenon in the natural sciences (i.e., biology, zoology, etc.)

In another post, we go over tips on how to improve ACT and SAT reading section scores.

8. ACT Test English Puts More Emphasis on Passage Main Ideas

While working through the ACT English section, students will also be expected to think of the passage as a whole. You won’t find these broad-minded types of questions on the SAT Reading and Writing section.

“Another key difference is that the ACT English section asks questions about the passage as a whole, unlike the SAT Reading and Writing section. Instead of focusing on isolated topics with correlating questions, students will also need to prepare for questions that ask about the author’s purpose, requiring students to keep track of main ideas as they work through the passages,” David says.

9. Different Types of Math Questions

While both tests evaluate a student’s understanding of core math concepts, they have a few subtle but important differences.

Scott Simons is the Vice President of Math/Science Curriculum and Instruction at KD College Prep. We asked him to explain a few of the differences you’ll find between the math sections.

“The ACT Math section generally contains proportionally more geometry questions and is more calculation based with very little data analysis. The SAT Math sections are more reasoning based and contain proportionally fewer geometry questions but proportionally more algebra I and II questions than the ACT Math test,” Scott says.

When preparing for upcoming tests, it’s also important to know that the ACT Math section expects students to understand slightly more advanced math subjects and concepts.

“The ACT Math test also contains some higher-level algebra II and trigonometry concepts that do not appear on the SAT Math test,” Scott says.

10. The SAT Test Is Now Digital

The SAT test will soon be available in a digital format (though still administered in person at testing centers). Students in the U.S. will first be able to take the digital test in March 2024.

Currently, the PSAT 8/9 and PSAT/NMSQT are already available digitally, with the PSAT 10 going digital in spring 2024.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s changing with the new digital test, in addition to the format changes (see point 6 above):

  • Length – The new digital test is an hour shorter than the previous version. Expect to spend two hours taking the test, with a break in between sections.
  • Devices – You’ll take the test on your own laptop or tablet. You’ll download the testing app prior to your test date. If you don’t have access to a device and your school will not provide one, you can submit a request to College Board well in advance to borrow a device on test day.

It’s expected that the new digital format will allow for a much faster score delivery timeline; you’ll likely get your scores within days, not weeks. The score reports will be similar to the old ones but will also include information about two-year colleges and workforce training programs.

With the first digital SAT test taking place in March 2024, there will no longer be an option to take it with a pencil and paper. The ACT test is also transitioning to a digital format, but students will have a choice; in other words, you could still take it on paper if you wish.

Starting in February 2024, the ACT will roll out the digital test to students at select locations.

11. The Digital SAT Test Is Adaptive

The new digital SAT test is computer adaptive. It’s a “smart” test that chooses the next module of questions to present to the student based on how the student answered the questions in the previous module. Students will still be able to return to previous questions to reconsider their answers if time allows.

Currently, it does not appear that the upcoming digital ACT test will feature adaptive modules.

12. The ACT Test Includes a Science Section

What the ACT Math section lacks in data analysis, it makes up for in the ACT Science section.

“There is very little prior science knowledge required. Scientific studies and experiments have been conducted, and you are provided with tables, figures, and graphs with the data from those studies and experiments, as well as textual information describing the topic and how the studies/experiments were done. You are then asked to interpret that data by identifying data points within the tables/figures/graphs and making conclusions about the scientific topic discussed from the given data/text,” Scott says.

But don’t let the ACT Science section scare you! You won’t be required to be a science expert. This part of the test will examine your ability to problem-solve and interpret data rather than retain extensive knowledge about a particular science subject.

“There will be one or two questions per test that do require some outside science knowledge, but typically that knowledge will be fairly basic information from the relevant topic area,” Scott says.

The science questions fall into these categories:

  • Interpretation of data
  • Scientific investigation
  • Evaluation of models, inferences, and experimental results

You’ll be asked to:

  • Recognize concepts related to the provided information
  • Apply critical thinking skills to analyze how the information provided leads to hypotheses or conclusions
  • Use provided information to draw conclusions or make predictions

13. Which Test Includes an Essay?

Until recently, the essay was included on both tests as an optional add-on. In January 2021, College Board announced that it will no longer offer the essay portion of the SAT test. This is likely due to COVID-19 restrictions and limitations, as well as a drastic decrease in colleges that require or review essay section test scores as part of the admissions process.

While the essay is no longer included with the national SAT test dates, you can still choose to do the essay on the ACT test if you wish. This will add 40 minutes to your total testing time.

Although it’s optional, there are circumstances that might entice you to do the essay. For instance, if your state or high school requires you to do the ACT test with the writing portion as a graduation requirement, then you’ll definitely need to do it.

Another reason why you might opt to do the essay is if you’re applying to a college that requires it. You can find that information on each college’s website (or by Googling the name of the school + ACT test writing requirement).

Some schools won’t look at the writing score at all, while others will consider it but do not require it. If you’re a strong writer, you may want to do the essay in hopes of boosting your application. However, as long as the school doesn’t require the writing score, your application won’t be penalized for not including it.

14. Section Length

In terms of overall testing time, the SAT test used to be a little longer than the ACT test. In its new digital format, the SAT test is now just over two hours long (134 minutes), whereas the ACT test is either 2.9 hours (without the essay) or 3.5 hours (with the essay).

ACT Section Breakdown

  • English: 45 minutes, 75 questions
  • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions
  • Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions
  • Science: 35 minutes, 40 questions
  • Writing (optional essay): 40 minutes, 1 question
  • Total: 175 minutes, 215 questions (With Essay: 215 minutes, 216 questions)

SAT Section Breakdown

  • Reading and Writing Section
    • 1st module: 32 minutes, 25 operational questions and 2 pretest questions
    • 2nd module: 32 minutes, 25 operational questions and 2 pretest questions
    • Total: 64 minutes, 54 questions
  • Math Section
    • 1st module: 35 minutes, 20 operational questions and 2 pretest questions
    • 2nd module: 35 minutes, 20 operational questions and 2 pretest questions
    • Total: 70 minutes, 44 questions

15. Amount of Time Per Question

Overall, the ACT test gives students less time per question than the SAT test. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a harder test.

ACT English allows for about 36 seconds per question, while the SAT Reading and Writing section gives students just over a minute per question.

The ACT Reading section offers more generous time allotments, with about 52.2 seconds per question. This accommodates the time required to read the passages before answering questions.

“Because the SAT test combines Reading and Writing topics, students are free to choose how to spend their 71 seconds per question. While some students might benefit from completing easier questions quickly and banking extra time for the harder questions, other students might misuse their time due to the lack of structure. Student must work more quickly on the ACT English and Reading sections compared to the SAT test, but some students might prefer the division and the structure that comes with it,” David says.

The ACT Math section is shorter overall than the SAT Math section. ACT Math gives students about 60 seconds per question. SAT Math gives students about a minute and a half per question.

The ACT Science section is also rather quick. Here, students have about 52.5 seconds per question.

Digital SAT Time-Per-Question Breakdown:

  • Reading and Writing Section: About 1 minute, 11 seconds per question
  • Math Section: About 1 minute, 35 seconds per question

ACT Time-Per-Question Breakdown:

    • English: 36 seconds per question
    • Math: 60 seconds per question
    • Reading: 52.5 seconds per question
    • Science: 52.5 seconds per question
    • Writing (optional essay): 40 minutes for one essay question

16. Level of Difficulty: Is the ACT Test Harder Than the SAT Test?

In general, the tests are too similar to determine whether one test is harder than the other. However, a student may find that one test better aligns with his or her personal strengths and level of knowledge.

Questions on the SAT test sometimes include slightly trickier language than ACT test questions, although the digital format promises to be more concise. Questions on the ACT test tend to be a little more straightforward.

On the other hand, the ACT gives you less time per question on every section. Your brain will need to keep a faster pace when solving for the answers.

You can get a 35 on two of the sections on the ACT test and still get a perfect composite score because the average will round up to 36. On the SAT test, you have to get a perfect score on all sections to earn a 1600.

While perfect composite scores on the ACT test are more common, this doesn’t necessarily translate to one test being easier than the other—they just follow different scoring methods, and colleges are aware of these small discrepancies.

17. Practice Versions: PSAT vs. PreACT Test

Each test has its own practice versions. However, access to these practice versions of the tests will vary depending on your location and your school district.

There are benefits to taking the PSAT test in 11th grade, so we always encourage our students to sign up whenever possible. The National Merit® Scholarship Program uses 11th grade PSAT scores to determine scholarship eligibility and National Merit Semifinalist status. Some colleges also award special scholarships to students who earn this recognition.

In contrast, the PreACT test exists purely as a practice version of the ACT test. There are no added benefits.

We only bring this point up because it may affect a student’s decision about which test to take. If you already plan to take the PSAT test, you might as well take the SAT test. The PSAT and SAT tests are very similar, and taking the PSAT test will help you prepare for both the SAT and ACT tests.

18. Test Dates: Different Times of Year

Both the ACT and SAT tests offer seven different Saturday testing dates each year. Usually, the tests won’t be offered on the same day, with the exception of the December test date.

We know that for busy high school students, the time of year matters. For some students, it’s best to pick a testing date when you’re not heavily involved in sports or extracurriculars, but this is not the only reason why a student may prefer a particular test date. At KD College Prep, we help students build a testing timeline that works best for their individual needs.

Below is a quick overview of which months the tests are usually offered. Read our post for this year’s list of official test dates.

act vs sat test dates

School Day Testing

Both the ACT and SAT tests offer school-day testing at participating high schools. This means that the high school will offer 11th and 12th graders the chance to take one of the tests during a school day. Not all high schools offer this, so contact your school counselor to find out if your school participates. We recommend that students take the test when it’s offered at your school.

19. The ACT Test Is Slightly More Expensive

It’s important to note that the fees have recently changed. When comparing the SAT vs. ACT test fees, the SAT test wins the price war.

Formerly $55, the fee for the SAT test is now $60.

The ACT is also changing its fees. The ACT test is $68 without the essay and $93 with the essay.

School day tests may be offered at a special discounted rate. A few states offer the ACT or SAT tests to their student residents for free. Fee waivers are available for eligible students.

20. Different Methods for Signing Up

Each test involves a different process in terms of signing up and payment.

Signing Up for the ACT Test

You can sign up for the ACT test by creating an account on the ACT test website. There, you’ll be able to enter your information, find a testing center near you, and select colleges to which you’d like to send your scores. Registration is required five to six weeks in advance.

Signing Up for the SAT Test

Students can register for the SAT test by setting up an account on the College Board website. In some cases, students have to register by mail. Registration is required about four weeks in advance.

Don’t forget to ask if your school offers a school-day test! Your high school counselor can tell you if it’s offered, when it is, and how to sign up for it.

Bottom Line: Should I Take the ACT or SAT Test?

Overall, the ACT and SAT tests have more similarities than differences. Both tests gauge student’s level of preparedness for college, and they both tend to cover the same general areas of knowledge: reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, math, logic, data analysis, and problem-solving.

As we’ve mentioned, colleges won’t give you “brownie points” for choosing one test above the other. So, the choice really comes down to which test will best meet your needs and how your scores turn out.

Just like some of us prefer apples over oranges, some students will find that they perform better on one test than the other. How you score on either test will vary depending on your level of preparedness and testing capabilities.

Our best advice is to take a bite out of both tests. This will require some planning ahead and additional test prep, but you’ll never know which test is better suited for you until you give them both a try. By taking both tests, you’ll maximize your chances of earning a high test score.

Do Colleges Prefer the ACT or SAT Test?

College admissions committees really don’t care whether a student takes one test or the other. Both tests are intended to evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses and assess college readiness.

At KD College Prep, we recommend taking both tests to determine which one best highlights your strengths. If you get a better score on the ACT test instead of the SAT test, then that’s the one you should send to colleges, or vice versa.

Which Test Is Easier?

This is a tricky question to answer because each student has their own unique strengths and struggles. If you work well with charts and graphs, then you’ll likely find the ACT Science section fairly easy. If you’ve got a knack for reading comprehension and language usage, then the SAT Reading and Writing section may be enticing.

However, it can be difficult to know exactly how well you’ll do on either test until you try them. We recommend giving both tests a try.

How Long Should You Study for the Tests?

Students often begin preparing for the tests in 9th grade, although we work with some students who like to get an even earlier start. There is no universal rule of thumb to follow regarding how much total time to spend preparing for the tests.

If you’re struggling with certain types of questions or subject areas, you’ll need to put more work into those areas. It’s a good idea to take assessment or diagnostic tests to get an idea of how you would perform on the actual tests if you took them right now. Then, you can build a study schedule based on the results of your diagnostic tests.

Are Colleges Doing Away With ACT/SAT Scores?

Many schools implemented test optional or test blind policies during and in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic. Test optional means that students are not required to submit their test scores, although the school will consider scores that are voluntarily submitted. Test blind means that schools will neither require nor accept test scores, so there’s no point in trying to submit them.

Although many schools are continuing those policies, many others are still requiring scores. These include some top schools, such as MIT and Georgetown.

Even if your list of colleges doesn’t include schools that require scores, it’s still a good idea to take the tests for a variety of reasons. Later on, you might change your mind about where you want to go to college, and your new dream school might require or at least accept scores. Or scores could be a differentiator between similar applicants.

Need Help Preparing for Upcoming Tests?

At KD College Prep, we offer in-person and online test prep programs for students in grades 7-12. Each of our programs prepares students for both the ACT and SAT tests, as well as for the PSAT test.

If you need help creating a testing plan or more advice on which test is best for you, schedule a free consultation with one of our advisors.

Emily Brehe-Gunter is the digital marketing director at KD College Prep.


Reach out to schedule your free consultation today.

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