SAT vs. ACT: Which Entrance Exam Is Better for You?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn what each of these popular college exams entail, and how to determine the best one for you.

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

Applying to college often involves taking a college entrance exam, such as the SAT or the ACT, which are both typically used to measure college readiness through multiple-choice tests. How you do on these exams is not an overall indication of your ability to perform well in college. Rather, admissions committees have historically used applicants' scores alongside other materials (like high school GPA and letters of recommendation) to assess the overall strength of their candidacy.

It's worth mentioning that, in recent years, a growing number of schools have dropped exam requirements in an effort to make the application process more equitable. However, some colleges and universities still require scores, and even when they don't, including above-average or high scores can bolster your overall application.

Since the College Board—the organization that oversees the SAT—recommends spending anywhere from 6-20 hours preparing for that test, it's worth figuring out which college entrance exam you should take: the SAT or the ACT. In this article, we’ll review what each exam covers, how the scores are measured, and help you determine which is the best option for you.

SAT vs. ACT: Sections and content

Both the SAT and the ACT involve similar subjects in reading, language comprehension, and mathematics. More than find out what you know, the aim is to understand your ability to comprehend information, think critically, and solve problems. Let's go over what you can expect from each test section.

SAT sections

The SAT is typically formatted into two sections that measure your ability to read and comprehend information, and complete a series of math-based questions. You'll find that the SAT's math questions are further broken up into two sections: one in which you're allowed to use a calculator and one in which you're not.

  • Reading: Review and analyze passages

  • Writing and language: Vocab, grammar, and editing

  • Math (no calculator): Algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry

  • Math (calculator): Algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry

ACT sections

The ACT has four total sections, with an optional writing section. Like the SAT, you're being tested on your ability to understand information, think critically and logically (in the case of the science section), and complete math questions.

  • English: Grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetoric

  • Math: Algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry

  • Reading: Review and analyze passages

  • Science: Review science-based passages and answer questions

  • Writing (optional): One essay

As you can see, the SAT tends to be a bit more math-heavy, while the ACT incorporates a science section that seeks to understand your logical and critical thinking abilities by asking you to review passages with graphs, charts, and other data. The ACT also lets you use a calculator for all math questions.

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

SAT vs. ACT: Questions and 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 section breaks down:

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

Learn more: How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

SAT vs. ACT scores

The SAT and ACT have different scoring mechanisms: The SAT is a total score between 400 and 1600, while the ACT is a composite score out of 36. Here’s how the two exams break down their scoring.

SAT scoring

Your SAT score reports include two different types of scores: your total score and your section scores.

  • Total score: This figure ranges from 400 to 1600 and represents 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 ready.

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: 13 Tips to Help Improve Your SAT Score

ACT scoring

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

If you opt to complete the essay portion of the ACT, you'll receive an overall score of 2 to 12, and four separate domain scores, each ranging from 2 to 12, that have to do with: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

College and career readiness scores vary across the ACT's 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.

Why you might want to take the SAT or ACT 

Historically, the vast majority of colleges and universities in the US required the SAT or ACT as part of their admissions process. However, many schools have now adopted a test-optional policy, meaning you do not have to take either exam.

That being said, not every school has a test-optional policy, so it's best to review the application requirements for every college or university you'd like to attend. If you have the option to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT, there are other reasons why you might want to take either standardized test and submit your scores.

  • 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.

Learn more: How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Which test is right for you? 

Before you set about studying for and taking either the SAT or ACT, it may help to take free practice tests online and see how you feel about completing each one with little to no preparation. That can be a good indication about how you'll do with additional study time.

Some additional factors that may help you determine which test is for you are:

  • Number of questions: The ACT has 215 questions compared to the SAT's 174 questions.

  • Subject strength: While the subjects for both the SAT and ACT are similar, there are notable differences. Think about which subjects you enjoy and do well in. If math is not your strong suit, consider that you can use a calculator on all portions of the ACT math section. If you do well in science, the ACT has a section that might be worth your time.

  • Availability: Your area may have different test centers and scheduling for each test. You can get an idea about when each test is available to take by visiting The College Board's website or the ACT's test center site.

  • Cost: It costs $60 for the SAT and $63 for the ACT. If you choose to complete the ACT's optional writing section, that cost rises to $88. These prices don't include additional fees like late registration or cancelation.

If you're still not sure which test is right for you, consider taking both of them officially and see if you do better on one compared to the other. You can submit your higher score as part of your college application.

Learn more: How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

Next steps

As you consider applying to college, think about earning your degree online from top universities such as Georgetown University or the University of London on Coursera. There are many benefits associated with learning online, including flexible scheduling and no required relocation.

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