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ACT v. SAT: 4 Factors to Consider

ACT v. SAT: 4 Factors to Consider

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Every four-year college and university in the US accepts both the ACT and SAT. This makes applying to the college of your choice easier than in the past, but there are notable differences between the two tests. Let’s look at the basics first, then we’ll explore factors you might want to consider.


The ACT is designed to assess overall academic ability and preparedness for college-level academics. It emphasizes knowledge acquired through coursework and study, and consists of four required sections (English, reading, math, science) along with an optional writing segment (essay). The standard test takes about 3 hours and the optional essay adds half an hour.

Test results include scores for each category, along with a composite score that represents an average of subtest scores. The scale ranges from 1 to 36 and the average national composite score hovers around 21.


The SAT emphasizes logical reasoning and learning potential. The current test consists of three required sections (critical reading, math, writing) and includes a required essay segment. The test takes about 3.75 hours in total.

Test results include scores ranging from 200 to 800 for each of the categories, plus a composite or cumulative score. The highest possible score is 2400 and the national average is just shy of 1500.

Factors to Consider

1. Structure & Scope

The ACT features a clear-cut structure so each major section it tackled as a unit, but the SAT is divided into smaller chunks that require you to move back and forth between math, writing, critical reading, etc.

The ACT includes a science portion, something not found in the SAT. The science segment focuses on your ability to analyze and interpret facts presented in the exam, so it doesn’t require memorization or deep scientific knowledge. The ACT math component tests basic arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry and trigonometry, while the SAT omits trig. The ACT English language section focuses on grammar and punctuation, while the SAT emphasizes vocabulary. The essay portion is optional for ACT test takers, but it’s required by the SAT.

2. Questions

In general, questions on the ACT are more straightforward and direct. The SAT places more emphasis on reasoning, so questions tend to be less direct and occasionally circuitous.

3. Length

The ACT features more questions (210) than the SAT (140), but time-wise, the ACT is slightly shorter. The required segments must be completed in about 3 hours, compared to the SAT which lasts about 3.75 hours.

4. Scoring

The SAT applies a slight penalty for wrong answers on multiple choice questions, while the ACT does not. Because the tests use different scoring scales and strategies, it’s difficult to make direct comparisons. However, a study conducted in 2007 found an ACT composite score of 26 generally equates to an SAT score of 1770.

Many educators and admissions offices view ACT scores as big picture indicators of knowledge, so a strong composite score may offset a weak subtest score. In contrast, SAT scores tend to be seen as specific indicators for each test area and overall performance.

Bottom Line

In the past, many students took both the ACT and SAT in order to apply to a mix of colleges that required one or the other. Today, all four-year colleges and universities accept both, so you have the opportunity to choose which entrance exam works best for you.

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