ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take

The ACT and SAT are widely accepted by U.S. colleges, which often prompts students to ask: Which test should I take? The answer lies in understanding the differences between the two tests.

Both college admissions exams remain popular, even as many colleges have gone test-optional or test blind. In the class of 2023, 1.9 million high school students took the SAT at least once, up slightly from 1.7 million in the previous year’s class, according to College Board data. Nearly 1.4 million students in the class of 2023 took the ACT, a slight increase from the previous year.

It’s unclear how many students took both tests, but experts say it is common to do so.

“No college has a preference between the two tests,” says Ginger Fay, a consultant for Green Apple College and Guidance, a college admissions consulting firm. “They’re like two children. They love them both the same. They just want them to be good.”

The idea behind both exams is to demonstrate college readiness. Although the tests vary in structure, timing, content and scoring, they indicate a student’s critical thinking and analytical skills. Experts note that some schools that became test-optional during the COVID-19 pandemic have gone back to requiring tests for admissions.

For most students, it’s best to take each test at least once, says Emily Mitchell, vice president of education for test prep and tutoring company Sylvan Education.

[Read: How Important Are SAT, ACT Scores in College Admissions?]

“For students, now the recommendation is unless you feel like you are absolutely going to bomb it, go ahead and take it and then you should know a couple of things about the schools you’re applying to,” Mitchell says. “You should know, ‘What is the average score of students who are accepted?’ ‘Is your score at that level or higher?’ If so, go ahead and submit it. If it’s not, it won’t be held against you.”

The SAT is offered by the nonprofit College Board, which also offers Advanced Placement exams and other testing services. The nonprofit ACT organization is more limited in scope, focusing largely on its namesake test.

ACT vs. SAT Differences

Some students take both tests and score well, while others fare significantly better on one based on their learning style and academic strengths.

One of the biggest changes is the SAT moving to an adaptive digital format in March 2024, resulting in a shorter test of two hours and 14 minutes rather than three hours.

With the adaptive format, how students do on a set of test questions determines the difficulty of subsequent questions. This method is used on other standardized tests, such as the GRE, says Allen Koh, CEO of admissions firm Cardinal Education. Students are also allowed to use graphing calculators on the math section of the new version of the SAT.

The new SAT is broken down into two sections: a 64-minute reading and writing section and a 70-minute math section. The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes, though the 40-minute optional writing test would stretch that to a little more than three and a half hours. The ACT is composed of a 35-minute reading test, 45-minute English test, 60-minute math section and 35-minute science test.

“In general, the SAT is much more generous time-wise,” Koh says. “You have much more time per question so you can really think about each question. If you lose focus easily or you’re a slower standardized test-taker, the SAT is probably better for you.”

The SAT format change made questions more concise, and lengthy reading passages were replaced with shorter versions. Now, one question, rather than multiple, is tied to each reading, Koh says.

[See: 25 Colleges With the Highest SAT Scores.]

“So if you’re not as strong of a reader or you’re less focused, the SAT could be better for you,” he says. “The paradox is that the average question on the ACT is easier, but you just get so much less time per question, and that’s what makes the ACT challenging.”

The two exams may appeal to different types of students, experts say, though it’s important students understand possible misconceptions. For example, the ACT includes a science section, but it doesn’t necessarily test someone’s aptitude for science concepts, Koh says.

“The science section is more of an applied reading section than a science section,” he says. “We don’t train people in science for the science section of the ACT, we train people where to find the answers and the answers of how they’re asking these lab setup questions.”

While some students take both tests, experts say that isn’t always necessary, and preparing for both presents a challenge due to their differences. Each requires different strategies, so some students may be better off becoming well-versed in one instead of going back and forth between the two, Fay says.

To help students make a decision, experts suggest they begin by taking a full-length practice test for each exam and see which is best suited for them. Many schools offer the PSAT or Practice ACT, but practice tests are also available through each company’s website.

Deciding to Take or Skip the ACT Writing Test

The College Board announced in early 2021 that it was ending the SAT optional essay and subject tests. Currently, the ACT continues to offer its optional 40-minute writing test that accompanies the exam, though it costs test-takers an extra $25.

[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]

In general, experts say it’s best to take the writing essay.

“We think it’s just better to opt in up front and then you can opt out later if you want,” Koh says. “Do your research in terms of the universities you’re interested in. If you can’t figure that out, then you have to keep your options open and I would take the writing.”

SAT vs. ACT Score Conversion

For students interested in comparing scores on the SAT and ACT, the College Board and the ACT organization provide conversion charts to show how composite scores stack up. The table below offers a breakdown of this data.

For the SAT, total scores range from 400 to 1600; for the ACT, the composite score runs from 1 to 36. Those ranges do not include the optional ACT writing test, which is scored separately.


The average SAT test score for 2023 high school graduates was 1028, down from 1050 for the class of 2022. The average ACT score for the class of 2023 was 19.5, down from 19.8 for the class of 2022. That marked the sixth consecutive year scores dropped.

It’s important to understand what these scores mean, Koh says. The SAT typically allows only two or three incorrect answers to earn a perfect score, while test-takers can miss seven or eight questions and still earn a perfect score on the ACT, he says.

“We tend to think higher scores are easier to attain on the ACT,” he says. “As a college consulting firm, we believe that universities don’t care whether they receive an SAT or ACT. What they care about is percentiles and if the subsection scores make sense considering the major you have indicated.”

ACT and SAT Costs

The costs of the exams also vary and have increased in the past year. The SAT costs $60, up from $52 previously. The ACT costs $68 for only the exam, up from $63 last year, and $93 if the optional writing test is included, compared to $88 last year.

Additional fees may apply for other options, such as late registration. Students may also be able to take the SAT or ACT for free with state support or fee waivers.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

How to Decide if You’re Ready for College

Understand What’s a Good ACT Score for College Admissions

Questions to Ask Your High School Counselor When Applying to College

ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take originally appeared on

Update 01/30/24: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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