SAT vs ACT: Which Test Is Right for You?

SAT vs ACT: Which Test Is Right for You

Colleges and universities use several tools to help them choose the best and brightest students. For example, a student’s standardized test scores can significantly influence their admittance rate.

But what do you know about two of the most widely recognized college entrance exams, the SAT and ACT? If you’re unfamiliar with these exams, you may struggle to earn the highest possible scores.

Fortunately, this guide can help you learn more about both test types and choose the option that best fits your learning style.

SAT Overview

sat overview

The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) is perhaps the most widely recognized college entrance exam in the United States. Millions of students take this test each year, and their scores can significantly influence their college acceptance results.

While the SAT has undergone some major changes over the last few decades, it remains one of the top choices among students and educators to gauge educational aptitude and ability.

What Does the SAT Include?

The SAT consists of three mandatory sections and a fourth optional essay portion. The three primary subjects included in the SAT are:

  • Reading
  • Writing and Language
  • Mathematics

Understanding the types of questions included within these sections is essential to prepare yourself for SAT success. It can also help you decide whether the SAT is the right choice for you and your educational goals.



The SAT reading portion is 65 minutes long and consists of 52 comprehension-based questions. For this section, you’ll need to skim through several passages.

You’ll then need to answer questions relating to those passages. Thus, reading comprehension and clarity are the two most essential skills tested in this section.

Writing and Language

The SAT writing and language portion includes several passages and 44 multiple-choice questions. However, this section focuses far more heavily on vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure than comprehension. It also lasts a mere 35 minutes.


The mathematics portion of the SAT can be somewhat overwhelming, especially for high school students that have only taken the most fundamental math courses. That’s because the SAT includes several advanced math topics and related questions.

However, SAT math primarily consists of algebraic functions and equations. There’s also a focus on complex problem-solving skills. Students can use a calculator for some parts of this portion of the SAT but may be asked to stop using their calculator for specific sections.

How Is the SAT Scored?

How Is the SAT Scored

The three SAT sections are regrouped into two main areas to allow for easier scoring. These two sections are:

  1. Mathematics
  2. Read and Writing

Each of these two major groups is worth between 200 and 800 points. As such, a student that performs well on the mathematics portion (earning a score of 700 or more) can still earn a poor cumulative score if they perform poorly on the language-based sections.

Spending an equal amount of time studying both major subject areas could potentially help students boost their overall score and get closer to reaching 1600—A perfect score.

What’s a Good SAT Score?

What's a Good SAT Score

As you might expect, a good score varies from person to person. Each university has its own criteria and admission requirements. Some may only accept students with scores within the 95th percentile. Others may accept students regardless of their SAT scores.

Still, the top universities tend to admit students with SAT scores of 1400 or higher. That’s only 200 points less than a perfect score. As such, students looking to make themselves highly competitive will want to earn the highest possible score on this exam.

How Long Do SAT Scores Last?

Technically, SAT scores last a lifetime. However, in practice, they only last for about five years.

If you take the SAT, wait five years, then apply to a university, you may need to retake the test to gain admittance.

Which Colleges Accept SAT Scores?

Which Colleges Accept SAT Scores

Nearly every college in the United States accepts SAT scores. Naturally, there are a handful of exceptions. But the bulk of US colleges look for and utilize SAT results.

How Much Does It Cost to Take the SAT?

You can expect to spend $55 to register and take the SAT. But it’s worthwhile to check if you qualify for an SAT fee waiver. If you’re eligible, you can take the SAT two times for free!

How to Study for the SAT

Thanks to CollegeBoard’s comprehensive selection of apps, programs, courses, and guides, studying for the SAT has never been easier. There are dozens of resources you can use to prepare yourself for this exam, including:

If you tend to follow an organized schedule, it may be helpful to create a personalized SAT study plan that allows for one hour of study each day. But if your style is a little more relaxed, a question-of-the-day SAT prep app may be the more practical option.

Still, the majority of SAT study materials available online are free. In addition, because millions of students practice for and take this exam each year, there are also hundreds of student-made virtual flashcards and study guides to browse from.

ACT Overview

act overview

The ACT (American College Testing) is a college entrance exam accepted by major universities and colleges throughout the United States, much like the SAT. However, it consists of four primary subjects and features a unique scoring system.

Additionally, the ACT focuses on material covered throughout a typical four-year high school education. As such, you won’t find many advanced math questions on the ACT math portion.

Another significant difference between the ACT and the SAT is question types. The SAT features some grid-in math areas, but the ACT is fully multiple-choice. However, both tests feature an options essay portion.

What Does the ACT Include?

The ACT contains four mandatory subject-based sections:

  1. English
  2. Reading
  3. Mathematics
  4. Science

As mentioned previously, there’s also an optional writing portion. These sections are divided into two major categories: STEM and ELA. The STEM category is the average of your mathematics and science results, while the ELA category focuses on your English and reading scores.



For many students, the English portion of the ACT is the most challenging one. That’s because it lasts for 45 minutes but includes 75 questions. Students that struggle to master ACT test-taking strategies may flounder in this section.

Still, the English portion primarily focuses on grammar, sentence structure, and conciseness. Brushing up on the basics related to those topics could help you test more comfortably.


Though the reading test still averages out at more than one question per minute, it only consists of four passages. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions relating to those passages, so reading comprehension and critical analysis are vital skills.


The mathematics portion of the ACT consists of 60 questions. This is the longest session of the ACT, lasting a full hour. That’s one question per minute, which can be challenging for some students.

Still, the ACT mathematics portion aims to measure the mastery of high school material, including geometry, algebra, and some trigonometry. As such, students with a basic understanding of high school mathematics may find that this session is relatively simple.


The ACT’s science portion is one of the most unique aspects of the exam, as the SAT does not feature a science-based section.

Students will answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. These questions are based on lengthy passages, charts, and graphs. The challenge here is to interpret the data and correctly answer the multiple-choice questions.

How Is the ACT Scored?

How Is the ACT Scored

Each of the four sections of the ACT earns a score that falls between 1 and 36. These four final scores are averaged together to determine your cumulative ACT score.

However, your college or university may consider the STEM and ELA scores when reviewing your application.

For example, a student looking to gain admittance into a competitive science-focused degree program may need a high ACT STEM score. But a student entering a liberal arts program may be more competitive with a higher ELA average score.

What’s a Good ACT Score?

As with the SAT, a good score varies depending on the school students seek admittance to. The most competitive universities tend to accept students with the highest possible scores. Community colleges may have far more relaxed score criteria.

The highest possible score you could earn on the ACT is 36. However, the average score is far closer to 20. If you’re looking to get accepted into an Ivy League institution, you’ll want to aim for as close to perfect as you possibly can.

How Long Do ACT Scores Last?

ACT scores remain valid for approximately five years. After that point, universities may ask prospective students to retake the test and submit their most recent results. However, some schools offer a CPT (college placement test) to gauge their student’s course readiness.

Which Colleges Accept ACT Scores?

Which Colleges Accept ACT Scores

Nearly every four-year university in the United States accepts ACT scores. Only a handful of schools don’t accept ACT results, and they tend to be the same schools that don’t accept SAT scores.

Be sure to check your preferred university or college’s acceptance requirements before registering for either test.

How Much Does It Cost to Take the ACT?

The ACT costs $85 with the essay portion but only $60 without it. Because the writing portion of the ACT is optional, students may want to go without it. That said, if you’re looking to get accepted into a college with an essay requirement, you’ll want to opt for the whole test.

How to Study for the ACT

Studying for the ACT is much like studying for the SAT. You’ll want to gather up-to-date study materials and begin reviewing them several weeks before your test date. It’s also a great idea to time yourself when taking practice tests to prepare for the timed subject-based sessions.

Unfortunately, ACT preparation materials aren’t nearly as accessible or plentiful as SAT study guides. That said, there are a handful of free or low-cost study materials you can take advantage of to prepare yourself for this test.

If you’re searching for free ACT study materials, you can choose:

  • A half-length test with questions from all significant sections
  • A short ACT pop quiz with a variety of different questions and answers
  • An ACT question-of-the-day for rapid testing

You can also choose to download the official Preparing for the ACT Test study guide. However, to access this guide, you’ll need to provide your name, email address, and country of residence.

In terms of paid materials, there are several Kaplan courses that you could purchase and complete, including a more relaxed self-paced virtual course. Students could also purchase a hard copy study guide, such as The Official ACT Prep Guide.

SAT vs. ACT: Which Test Is Right for You?

Which Test Is Right for You

Now that you’re more familiar with both the SAT and ACT, it’s time to consider which exam might be right for you. To determine which test might help you earn the better scores, it’s crucial to think about your:

  • Testing Style
  • Mastery of Material
  • Personal Preferences

Generally, the SAT is considered the more challenging test. And while both the SAT and the ACT are timed tests, the SAT’s testing sessions can last an hour or more.

If you’re someone who struggles to sit still for long periods, the ACT could be a better choice. But mastery of the material is another factor that test-takers will want to think about. The ACT primarily tests for knowledge gained throughout high school—the SATs for mastery of high school coursework and some college-level material.

If you’re unfamiliar with complex mathematics or college-level reading tasks, you might struggle with the SAT. However, if you’re confident in your mastery of this high-level material, you may prefer the SAT over the ACT.

Lastly, there’s the matter of personal preference. Some schools may offer students a discount on the cost of taking the SAT, but not many do the same for the ACT. Of course, many students are opting to take both tests.

Doing so could help you ensure the best possible score. After all, you can choose the test that yields the better score and submit those results, increasing your chance of getting accepted into your preferred college.

Final Thoughts

final thoughts

The SAT and ACT are college entrance exams that are widely accepted by universities throughout the United States. The right test for you depends on your comfort level and preferences.

The SAT tends to include more college-level questions than the ACT. Additionally, the SAT testing sessions last longer than ACT testing sessions. However, since most schools accept both tests, students may want to consider taking both and choosing the better result.

If you have any questions, be sure to comment below! And remember, the primary difference between the SAT and ACT is the test material. The right option for you depends on your personal preferences.