Differences Between the ACT® and the SAT® Tests

They both have three letters in their acronym, but is that the only commonality between the SAT® and ACT® tests?

Not quite.

Follow along as we guide you through the similarities and differences between the two main college admissions tests — and give you guidance about which ones you should take.

In this post, we’ll answer the following frequently asked questions:

  1. How are the ACT and SAT tests similar?
  2. How are the ACT and SAT tests different?
  3. How much does each test cost?
  4. How long is each test?
  5. How are the ACT and SAT tests scored?
  6. What sections are included in each test?
  7. Which test should you take?

How are the ACT and SAT tests similar?

The tests are similar in a few ways.

Both are college admissions tests

Both the ACT and SAT tests are standardized college admissions tests that test a student’s mastery of high school knowledge.

Both tests are widely accepted at colleges throughout the United States. Colleges use a conversion chart to compare scores between the tests.

Keep in mind that some colleges may require or recommend the essay (or written portion) from one test or both. To find out exactly what a prospective college needs, check the school’s website or contact the admissions office.

Both tests require early registration and payment in advance

Both the ACT and SAT tests require you to register approximately a month in advance of the test date. Each test offers seven test dates per year. Fortunately, the tests take place on different days.

You are required to pay for the tests in advance in order to register.

How much does the ACT or SAT test cost?

  • ACT test cost: $49.50 ($64.50 with essay)
  • SAT test cost: $50.50 ($67 with essay)

However, there are different fees associated with test answers, such as if you want to order a copy of the test booklet. The registration process for each test will give you all the options.

There are, in both cases, resources for obtaining scholarships and fee waivers through your school and the organizations that govern the tests. Ask your high school counselor if you need financial assistance to help pay for the tests.

Both provide a detailed score report

After you take either the SAT or ACT test, you’ll get a detailed score report that analyzes your performance. This will identify your composite score, as well as how you did on each section.

For an additional cost, both tests offer the option to receive the correct answers for each question, but only on certain test dates. This is particularly useful if you plan to retake the test in order to improve your score.

Both tests have similar formats and test common subject material

Both tests assess a student’s understanding of fundamental math, reading, grammar, and data interpretation skills, along with more advanced concepts.

The tests look quite similar too. The question formats include the following:

  • Multiple choice questions with 4 answer choices
  • Grid-in math questions (SAT test only)
  • Essay or written portion (optional)
  • Reading comprehension passages

How are the ACT and SAT tests different?

You’ll give yourself the best chance to reach your score goal if you understand the differences between the ACT and SAT tests.

There are three major areas in which the ACT and SAT tests differ: time, scoring methods, and sections.

How long is each test?

The SAT test is slightly longer than the ACT test. However, you should not base your decision on which one to take on time length alone.

How long is the ACT test?

  • 2 hours and 55 minutes (without the essay)
  • Essay portion (optional): 40 minutes

How long is the SAT test?

  • 3 hours (without the essay)
  • Essay portion (optional): 50 minutes

*Both tests can also include an experimental section.

Here’s the trade-off, though. Because the SAT test is longer, it allows for more time per question than the ACT test does. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean one test is easier than the other.

You have 70 seconds per question on the SAT test, while you’ve got just 49 seconds per question on the ACT test.

Seconds per question broken down by test section:

SAT Section Timing: How many seconds per question?

  • Reading – 75 seconds
  • Writing – 48 seconds
  • Math (no calculator) – 75 seconds
  • Math (with calculator) – 87 seconds

ACT Section Timing: How many seconds per question?

  • English – 36 seconds
  • Math – 60 seconds
  • Reading – 52.5 seconds
  • Science – 52.5 seconds

The reason for this is because the ACT test packs more questions onto its slightly shorter tests.

How many questions on each test?

  • ACT test: 215 questions
  • SAT test: 154 questions

How is each test scored?

The tests use different scoring methods by tallying up the scores on the sections of the test to create a composite score.

Score ranges for the SAT and ACT tests:

  • SAT Test Composite Score: 400-1600
  • ACT Test Composite Score: 1-36

To give some perspective, the national average for the SAT test is 1060, and the national average for the ACT test is 21.

Yeah, those numbers don’t look anything alike. Check out these posts for a breakdown on how the ACT test is scored or how the SAT test is scored.

What sections are included in each test?

The ACT and SAT tests have different, yet very similar, sections.

SAT Test Sections

  • Evidence Based Reading
  • Writing
  • Math (no calculator)
  • Math (with calculator)
  • Essay (optional)

ACT Test Sections

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

Main difference between sections:

  • On the SAT test, you have to do a math section without the use of a calculator while the ACT test allows you to use a calculator on the entire math section.
  • On the ACT test, you have to take a science section, while the main SAT test does not contain a science section. However, the SAT test does have science concepts sprinkled through its sections.

Ultimately, the tests are very similar.

Each test section is named somewhat differently, but the tests pretty much cover the same areas: reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, math, logic, data analysis, and problem-solving.

Keep in mind that the ACT test’s science section involves reading, logical deduction, and understanding data from charts and graphs. You’re not required to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements, conduct an experiment, or anything of that nature.

Another way the test sections differ is the writing portion of the tests. You could choose to write an opinion/persuasive essay on the ACT test or a textual analysis essay on the SAT test.

Which Test Should I Take?

It depends on where you plan to apply to college.

Ask yourself this:

  • Which test dates work best?
  • Which test best reflects your testing style? More reading? More math? Type of essay?

Our recommendation: Take a swing at both tests

If you’re looking at competitive colleges, we recommend that you plan to take both tests twice during your junior year of high school (along with the PSAT test), although you may not need all of the options. You may score much higher on one test versus the other, but it’s good to have flexibility.

Plus, taking both tests provides additional benefits. By preparing for both tests, you’re maximizing your chances of getting a high score. As a result, this can expand your college and scholarship opportunities.

If you get a strong score on one of the two types of tests, send that score in! If you get a strong score on both tests, send the scores for both!

For more information about how to prepare for each of these tests, check out our test prep programs.

Want to take a free practice test?

Contact us to schedule your free diagnostic test. Our diagnostic test is a practice version of the SAT or the ACT test taken in a proctored environment.


Reach out to schedule your free consultation today.