SAT or ACT: Which Exam Should I Choose?

tl;dr: When it comes to standardized testing, it can be hard to decide between the SAT and the ACT. In this guide, you'll learn the differences between the two tests, such as the time per question, the number of choices, and the math and science sections. With this information, you can decide which test is right for you. Good luck and don't forget to check out Fiveable for study resources!


When it comes to standardized testing, choosing between the SAT and ACT can be challenging. In the end, it should be your decision to choose between the two exams (or take both!). In this guide, you'll be able to see what the SAT and the ACT have to offer.

Also, note that while standardized tests have become optional for the Class of 2022 (and presumably Class of 2023), it's always a good idea to have a test score or two in hand!

What is the SAT? 📘

What is the SAT? You probably already know what it is because everyone talks about it. The SAT, or the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was developed by College Board in 1926 (yes, College Board again) to test college readiness. The test in total is worth 1600 points, with two main sections, English and Math, worth 800 points. The English section is subdivided into reading and writing, while Math is subdivided into math without calculator and math with calculator.

Around 2.2 million students from the Class of 2020 took the test. 🙌

SAT logo
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What is the ACT? 📕

So what is the ACT? The ACT, or the American College Test, was created in 1959 and is currently administered by the company ACT. Though the test is similar to the SAT, there are some differences which you should be aware of before making your choice. The maximum score you can receive is 36, with four sections of English, math, reading, and science. 🎉

1.67 million students from the Class of 2020 took the ACT.

ACT logo
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What's the Difference? 🤷

The SAT and the ACT may look similar, but they are different when it comes to details. Not one test is harder than the other, but you might find one test easier than the other depending on your strengths.


Duration 3 hours 2 hrs 55 min w/o writing; 3 hrs 35 min w/ writing
Score Range 200-1600 1-36
Costs $52 $60 w/o writing; $70 w/ writing
Sections 1. Reading: 65 min; 2. Writing and Language: 35 min; 3. Math w/o Calculator: 25 min; 4. Math w/ Calculator: 55 min 1. English: 45 min; 2. Math: 60 min 3. Reading: 35 min; 4. Science: 35 min; 5. Writing (opt.): 40 min
Total Questions 154 215
Accepted by Colleges? ✅ ✅

Other Major Differences 📋

Time per Question ⏳

Generally speaking, you have more time per question on the SAT than the ACT. So if you're one of those test-takers who needs more time per question (especially for the math section), then consider the SAT! If you're confident with zipping through the questions, the ACT might be the right test for you.

Science Section 🔬

As you probably noticed, the ACT has a section dedicated to science. Though this doesn't necessarily mean it'll test you on your science knowledge, it will test your ability to analyze and interpret scientific experiments and concepts. The SAT, however, has this incorporated in the reading section, so there's less science stuff, but you'll still need to know how to read and analyze scientific articles.

Number of Choices #️⃣

The ACT math section gives you five choices (A-E) for multiple-choice instead of the regular 4 (A-D), which the SAT does. But be careful! The SAT has a student-produced answer section, where you aren't given any choices at all (basically free-response). So if you don't like free-response and would be okay with five choices, shoot for the ACT!

Math Section 🔢

While the SAT math difficulty goes up to Algebra 2, the ACT math difficulty comprises more geometry, statistics, and even pre-calculus! In short, the SAT is heavily algebra-based, while the ACT is heavily geometry-based. If you haven't learned pre-calculus and find algebra easy, the SAT might be your thing. 😊

Calculator 💯

The ACT allows you to use your calculator anytime, unlike the SAT, which only allows you to use it for the last section. If you're emotionally attached to your calculator and cannot function without one, you might consider taking the ACT!

Number of Passages 📚

The number of passages for the reading section is different too. The SAT has five passages--one passage from literature, history, social sciences, and two from science. This differs from the ACT, which has four passages from fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences. So if you like less reading, there's the ACT.

Reading Section 🤓

While studying for the SAT, you might've encountered a question that asks you to choose a quote that serves as evidence and supports your answer from the previous question. Good news! The ACT doesn't have that! However, the non-chronologically organized questions might pose some challenges. Again, always consider your personal strengths and preferences when choosing between the two tests!

Optional Essay ✍️

Lastly, there is an optional essay for the ACT. Though the SAT did have one in the past, it is no longer offering that optional essay. So if you think writing essays is your strength, you should consider the ACT.

the differences between the SAT and the ACT
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Some schools are going test-optional in an effort to make college admissions more equitable. Though this means you don't have to submit scores to these schools and it won't harm your application, you might still want to take the SAT or ACT even if

Conclusion 💡

Once you identify what you're good at, it'll be easier to weigh the pros ➕ and cons ➖ of each test! If you really can't decide, taking both tests might help you figure out which test YOU would prefer. 💭

Also, remember, you should always take into consideration graduation requirements for your school and your state. 🏫

Good luck with your standardized test! If you get lost, make sure to consult your school counselor, friends, teachers, and parents! And when you're studying for either test (or both!), make sure to check in at Fiveable for study resources! ⭐

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