SAT vs. ACT: Which Should I Take?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn about the similarities and differences between the two popular college admission exams before you sign up for a test date.

[Featured image] A woman in a yellow shirt and scarf sits at a desk preparing to take a college entrance exam.

While it is becoming more common for institutions to waive the admission requirement of having completed a standardized test, you still may benefit from taking one. But which test is best for you?

Deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT depends on several factors, including your verbal and mathematical abilities, the school you plan to attend, and the day you're available to take the test.

Both tests are standardized, multiple-choice exams that assess reading, writing, and mathematics skills. However, the tests have different structures and types of questions. Students who feel more confident in their mathematical abilities may prefer the SAT, while those with stronger verbal skills may choose the ACT.

Learn more: Bachelor’s Degree Guide: Resources for Your Undergraduate Education

Uses for standardized tests 

Traditionally, nearly all colleges and universities in the United States required SAT, ACT, or both as part of their admissions process. However, many schools have now adopted a test-optional policy that allows prospective students to submit applications without test scores. But there are still some reasons you may decide to take one of these standardized tests.

  • Bolster your admissions portfolio. If you submit test scores, admissions officers will consider them alongside the rest of your application materials to develop a well-rounded idea of the type of student you are, your interests, and your strengths. If you score in the top 50th (or even better, above the top 25th) percentile compared to previously admitted students, submitting your scores may enhance your application.

  • Access classes that fit your educational needs. Admissions committees may use test scores to decide which courses you should take if the school offers different levels like developmental and honors.

  • Qualify for merit scholarships. Some scholarship organizations use test scores to identify potential candidates for their merit-based programs. Your exam scores can add insight into your academic strengths and potential.

  • Keep your options open. Having test scores ready to submit as part of your application will keep your options open, even if your first choice of schools is test-optional. You may change your mind and want to apply for a school with a testing requirement.

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SAT vs ACT exam structure and content

Both exams are similarly difficult, however they test slightly different subject areas, so you may feel more comfortable taking one test over the other.

The SAT has four test sections:

  • Reading

  • Writing and Language

  • Math (no calculator)

  • Math (calculator)

The ACT also has four test sections:

  • English

  • Math

  • Reading

  • Science

The SAT tends to be a bit more math-heavy, with one of the two sections being calculator-free and incorporating data analysis in addition to the arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry found on both exams. The ACT permits calculator use for all math questions.

The ACT also adds a science section, which tests logic and critical thinking—not specific scientific subject-matter knowledge.

Typically, if you prefer math questions, you may want to consider the SAT, whereas if you prefer verbal and reading skills, you may feel more comfortable with the ACT.

How the SAT and ACT differ in length

Both the SAT and ACT have four test sections, though they differ in length.

It takes three hours to complete the SAT, and this does not include the mandatory breaks between some of the tests. Here’s how each SAT section breaks down:

SAT sectionNumber of questionsTime allotted
Reading52 questions65 minutes
Writing and Language44 questions35 minutes
Math (no calculator)20 questions25 minutes
Math (calculator)38 questions55 minutes

It takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete the ACT, and you take mandatory breaks between some of the tests. Here’s how each ACT subtest breaks down:

ACT sectionNumber of questionsTime allotted
English75 questions45 minutes
Math60 questions60 minutes
Reading35 questions40 minutes
Science35 questions40 minutes

How scoring differs: SAT vs. ACT scores

The SAT and ACT have different scoring mechanisms. The SAT is a total score out of 1600, while the ACT is a composite score out of 36. Here’s how the two exams break down their scoring.

SAT scoring

SAT score reports include three different types of scores: your total score, your section scores, and your test scores.

  • Total score: When someone asks you for your SAT score, you will likely give them the total score, which ranges from 400 to 1600. The total score is the sum of the two section scores: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math.

  • Section scores: Section scores for EBRW and Math range from 200 to 800. SAT considers an EBRW score of 480 or higher and a Math score of at least 530 as college and career ready.

  • Test scores: CollegeBoard uses your test scores in Reading, Writing and Language, and Math to calculate your section scores. Individual test scores range from 10 to 40.

SAT score reports also include cross-test scores in Analysis in History/Society Studies and Analysis in Science, also ranging from 10 to 40 points, and subscores, ranging from 1 to 15 points, that provide more specific details about your exam score.

The SAT does not penalize students for incorrect answers. This means there is no penalty for guessing, and you should answer every question even if you are not sure about the answer.

Learn more: What Is a Good SAT Score? Finding Your Goal Score

ACT scoring

ACT composite scores range from 1 to 36. This composite score is the average of the four test scores—English, Math, Reading, and Science—and is rounded to the nearest whole number.

Those who take the optional essay test also receive a Writing score of 2 to 12. The essay score report includes four domain scores, which range from 2 to 12. The domain scores include Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

College and career readiness scores vary across test sections:

  • English: 18

  • Math: 22

  • Reading: 22

  • Science: 23

Like the SAT, the ACT does not penalize test takers for incorrect answers. You can guess even if you are not sure about the answer without losing points.

Learn more: What Is a Good ACT Score? Finding Your Goal Score

How they differ in cost 

CollegeBoard charges $55 for the SAT. The late registration fee is $35. You pay $35 to cancel your registration and $53 for standby testing.

The full ACT test with no writing costs $60, and the ACT with writing costs $85. ACT charges an additional $57 fee for standby testing, a $36 fee for late registration, and a $40 fee for changing the registration.

Which test is right for me? 

After reviewing the structure and length of SAT vs. ACT, you may still have questions about which test is right for you. Ultimately, this is a personal decision—college admissions departments tend to consider both exams equally.

You can take a full-length practice test to experience the types of questions asked on each test and find out which one feels like a better fit, and when you're ready to sign up, visit the SAT and ACT websites to locate the test dates and a test center near you. There you can register for a test and find links to practice tests and additional information about what to expect on test day.

If you're still not sure which test is right for you, consider taking both of them. You can retake the test if you want to improve your score.

Next steps

As you work toward pursuing your college education, your learning preferences, goals, and lifestyle can help guide you toward the right school for you. Earning your degree online offers the flexibility to learn at your own pace from anywhere. As you consider your options, explore online bachelor's degrees from top universities available on Coursera.

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