SAT vs ACT: What Are The Key Differences?

There comes a time in every high schooler’s life where they stop being a high schooler — they start becoming a college prepper. Besides the extra-curriculars lining your resume and top-notch grades, you have to ace the SAT, the ACT, or sometimes both exams to get into your dream university.

Here’s the basic rundown of both of these exams — and the key differences you should know about both.

What Is the SAT?

The SAT stands for “Scholastic Assessment Test.” Many students take the SAT in their junior or senior year of high school.

The SAT consists of multiple-choice and well as a written response portion. Universities require students to take the SAT to assess whether they are ready for a college education.

It takes about three hours to take the SAT — and an additional 50 minutes if you’re doing the essay portion.

The SAT sections include math, evidence-based reading and writing, and the optional essay. It costs $46 to take the SAT and $60 if you’re doing the essay.

The highest score you can make on the SAT is 1600, with 1060 as the average score. Each SAT section is scored on a 200 to 800 points scale, meaning the lowest you can make on a section is 200 and the highest possible score is 800.

Your total score is thus the sum of these two sections. The essay is an additional score that doesn’t influence the points earned in the math and reading section.

You must register for the SAT at least five weeks before the exam date. Register for the SAT online through the College Board’s website. There you can see available exam dates and times, testing requirements, and additional information.

The SAT also offers Subject Tests, which test specialized knowledge. You can take a subject test in:

  • Math
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • Spanish
  • Spanish with Listening
  • French
  • French with Listening
  • Chinese with Listening
  • Italian
  • German
  • German with Listening
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Latin
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening

Not every school requires a subject test, and subject tests depend on the type of program you’re applying too. You can see a list of schools requiring subject tests here on the College Board’s website. Subject tests are an additional cost on the SAT.

What Is the ACT?

The ACT stands for “American College Testing.” The ACT is another college entrance exam universities use to test student readiness.

It takes two hours and 55 minutes to complete the exam, and an additional 40 minutes if you’re taking the ACT writing portion.

Below is the cost breakdown for the exam:

  • U.S. without Writing: $50.50 USD
  • U.S. with Writing: $67.00 USD
  • Non-U.S. without Writing: $150.00 USD
  • Non-U.S. with Writing: $166.50 USD

The maximum score you can make on the ACT is a 36, with 21 as the average score.

Many students take the ACT in the spring of their junior year or fall of their senior year. Taking the exam earlier allows students to retake the exam and boost their score before applying to college programs.

Students can take the ACT in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July of every year. You can view ACT test dates here on the Princeton Review’s website.

The ACT consists of four portions:

  • English
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Science
  • (Optional) Essay

The ACT test is scored on a 1 to 36 point scale. You can score a maximum of 36 points on each of the sections, which are then averaged to create the composite score. The writing test’s score doesn’t affect the overall score.

You must register for the ACT at least five weeks before the exam takes place. You can register for the ACT online and view exam dates, registration dates, and when scores will be released here.

What Are Key Differences between SAT and ACT?

The Science Section

The ACT has a science section while the SAT does not. You’ll have to dedicate more time to study this portion of the test than you would for the SAT.

The ACT’s science section measures your interpretation, evaluation, analysis, reasoning, and problem-solving skills necessary in the sciences. This portion is 35 minutes long and includes 40 questions.

SAT Better for Non-Stem Students

Those gifted in language arts, reading comprehension, and writing will prefer the SAT. While everyone’s take on the SAT is subjective, people often say that they didn’t have as hard time answering the evidence-based reading comprehension questions as they do on the ACT.

Besides, the SAT doesn’t have a science section, but the ACT does. If science isn’t your strong suit, you might find it worthwhile to focus your attention on the SAT as opposed to the ACT.

ACT Has Harder Math and Science

The ACT has a harder science portion because, well, it has one and the SAT doesn’t. But people often say that the ACT’s reading comprehension is more complex than on the SAT.

If you’re naturally gifted in math and science, you might prefer the ACT over the SAT.

SAT Has More Trick Questions

The SAT test designers know how to trip students up. This isn’t to say that the ACT is a saint when it comes to trick questions, but we’ve noticed that the SAT includes more test-taking pitfalls than the SAT.

Therefore, studying for the SAT includes studying up on the exam itself — and how to avoid such trick questions — than on the ACT.

SAT Gives You More Time Per Question

The SAT and ACT are around three hours long, but the ACT has that additional science section. That means the SAT gives you more time to ponder each question before answering.

What Are Similarities Between the SAT and ACT?

Testing Under Pressure

Both the SAT and ACT examine how you perform under pressure. The standardized test format compares to the exam format many universities employ, where you will be seated next to other students taking a difficult exam.

Of course, thoroughly preparing for the SAT and ACT improves how you perform under pressure.

Don’t Lose Points for Incorrect Answers

Submitting the wrong answers doesn’t count against you in either the SAT or ACT. Wrong answers lower the highest possible score you get in any section.

Comparable Content

The SAT and ACT both have a mathematics section that features algebra, as well as a reading comprehension test. Studying for one of these exams benefits you as you study for the other one.

Similar Study Habits

Studying for the SAT mimics studying for the ACT and vice versa. There are plenty of test prep tutors who can walk you through how to succeed on either test.

ACT or SAT exam prep books also tend to look the same. They walk through the core concepts tested on either standardized exam then include practice tests in the back, where you can score yourself and see your answer.

We recommend taking as many practice exams as possible. Questions start to look the same after a while, and you can get a sense of what the test designers are looking for.

Final Thoughts

Both the SAT and ACT require you to study. If you skate by with your general knowledge, you’re bound to need a retake.

Since nearly every college in the U.S. requires either the SAT or ACT, there are tons of study materials to help you achieve a perfect score. And we’re here to help you find the best SAT or ACT prep books to let you ace these exams.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.