When it comes to the ACT vs. the SAT, both exams are widely accepted by U.S. colleges, which often prompts students to ask: Which test should I take?
The answer to that question lies in understanding the differences between the two tests.
Both college admissions exams remain popular even as the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many colleges to go test-optional and temporarily deemphasize these exams in admissions considerations. In the class of 2020, nearly 2.2 million test-takers completed the SAT at least once while about 1.7 million students took the ACT. It is unclear how many students took both, but experts say it is common for test-takers to do so.
“More and more students in the last five to 10 years are taking both,” says Joe Korfmacher, a former counselor at a New York high school and current director of college counseling at a New York office of Collegewise, an admissions consulting company.
The idea behind both exams is similar: to demonstrate college readiness. But despite similar aims, the tests vary in structure and timing as well as the content matter and scoring.
The SAT is offered by the not-for-profit College Board, which also offers Advanced Placement courses and other testing services. The nonprofit ACT organization is more limited in scope, focusing largely on its namesake test.
ACT or SAT: Choosing Which Test to Take
Students hoping to find the easier testing option are out of luck.
“These are high-stakes tests; neither of them is going to be easy,” says Mai Jumamil, former director of college prep programs at Kaplan, a New York-based education company.
Korfmacher seconds that opinion: “I can definitely say, with certainty, that there’s not an easier test.”
To help students make their decision, experts suggest they begin with a practice test and see which exam is best suited for them.
“Your actual ability, how well you do percentile-wise on these tests, is really hard to determine unless you sit down and take a full-length official practice test from both the SAT and ACT,” says Chris Lele, senior GRE/SAT curriculum manager for Magoosh, a California-based test prep company. “I think in general it makes sense to put all of your time and resources into the test that you’re going to do better on percentile-wise. I think the complication is when you do around the same.”
The two exams may appeal to different types of students, says Jumamil. A key difference is that students with a strong English background “may flourish on the ACT,” which puts more emphasis on verbal skills, she says, while for students who are strong in math, “the SAT may reflect that much better.”
Elizabeth Levine, an independent educational consultant and founder of Signature College Counseling in New York, advises students to take both college admissions tests. Ideally, she says, they take both tests by the fall of their junior year and then prepare at length to retake their preferred exam.
[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]
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.
Experts have different views on whether a student should take the optional writing portion.
“We’re actually advising our students not to do the (optional) writing section,” Korfmacher says, explaining that many colleges no longer require or recommend it.
But Levine encourages her students to take it: “The last thing you want to do is not take the optional writing section and find out that the school you’re applying to requires or recommends it.”
To Lele, it depends. “Unless you really struggle with writing, it’s probably a good idea to take the essay so that can be an extra data point that colleges have to assess you by,” he says.
Recent data shows that the majority of students complete the optional essay for each exam. More than 1.2 million test-takers from the class of 2020 opted for the SAT essay the last year it was given before discontinuation, according to College Board data. For the ACT, 678,906 students from the class of 2020 took the writing test. Compared with the class of 2019, fewer test-takers from the class of 2020 took the optional writing portions for either exam.
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. According to figures from both organizations, the average SAT test score for 2020 high school graduates was 1051, and the average ACT score was 20.6.
|SAT score||ACT equivalent|
ACT vs. SAT Timing
The SAT takes three hours and the ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes, though the ACT’s 40-minute optional writing test would stretch it to a little more than three and a half hours.
The SAT features 154 questions vs. 215 for the ACT. Broken down by test components, the SAT has a reading test that takes 65 minutes, a 35-minute writing and language test and an 80-minute math section. The ACT is comprised of a 35-minute reading test, 45-minute English test, 60-minute math section and 35-minute science test.
The SAT does not include an independent science section but incorporates science questions throughout the exam.
The scoring for each test also differs. For the SAT, total scores range from 400-1600; for the ACT, the composite score runs from 1-36. Those ranges do not include the optional ACT writing test, which is scored separately.
ACT and SAT Costs
The costs of the exams also vary. The SAT costs $52. The ACT costs $55 for only the exam and $70 if the optional writing test is included.
Additional fees may apply for other options, such as late registration. Students may also be able to take the SAT or ACT for free thanks to state support or fee waivers.
How to Be Successful on the ACT or SAT
Regardless of which test students decide to take, the goal is the same: earning a score that shows college readiness.
To help students be successful, experts offer strategic test-prep tips. Some are simple, such as bring a snack on test day and take breaks when offered. Others require much more time and deliberation on the part of the student, such as identifying and working on weak spots in testing.
One best practice recommended by experts is to study well ahead of the test date.
“You really need to give yourself enough time to work out the areas you struggle in,” Lele says.
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Update 03/10/21: This article has been updated with new information.