ACT vs. SAT: What's the Difference?

ACT vs. SAT: What's the Difference?

When applying for college, there's a good chance that you'll need to submit standardized test scores as part of the admissions process. There are two main standardized tests used in evaluating you for post-secondary education — the ACT® and the SAT® exams. Understanding the differences between them will help you decide which to take or if you need to take both. On top of that, knowing the ins and outs of the ACT and the SAT exams can help you be better prepared.

Both exams contain questions generated from a standard test bank, and students are timed for each section. But before putting your number two pencil to paper, it's important to understand the basics, including:

Here's what you can expect from each test.

ACT SAT
Type of Test Achievement test that measures what you have learned in school. Aptitude test that evaluates your reasoning and verbal skills.
Test Sections English
Reading
Math
Science
Essay (optional)
Reading
Writing and language
Math
Essay (optional)
Test Length 2 hours, 55 minutes
3 hours, 35 minutes (with essay)
3 hours
3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)
Costs $46
$62.50 (with essay)
$46
$60 (with essay)
$20-$26 additional subject tests
More info collegeboard.org act.org

What's on the ACT Exam?

The ACT is an achievement test that measures what you have learned in school. When you take the ACT test, you are tested in the multiple-choice areas of:

  • English (75 questions in 45 minutes)
  • Mathematics (60 questions in 60 minutes)
  • Reading (40 questions in 35 minutes)
  • Science (40 questions in 35 minutes)

There is also an optional writing section (one prompt in 40 minutes) that is scored separately.

What's on the SAT Exam?

The SAT exam is an aptitude test that evaluates your reasoning and verbal skills and is comprised of reading, writing and language, and math sections as well as an optional essay.

The evidence-based reading and writing section focuses on your use and understanding of the English language as well as your comprehension and ability to edit and improve written work. The math section tests your understanding of math concepts and how to apply them.

The College Board, creators of the SAT exam, introduced a redesigned SAT exam in March 2016. The sections and times are as follows:

  • Reading: 65 minutes
  • Writing and language: 35 minutes
  • Essay (optional): 50 minutes
  • Math: 80 minutes

Additionally, some students may get a 20-minute unscored variable section designed to try out new questions.

Many Schools Accept Either Test Score

In the past, students chose which test to take based on where the school they were applying to was located. Midwestern and western schools preferred the ACT, while eastern and Ivy League colleges required SAT scores. However, the International Business Times reports that the days of preferences based on geography are past. Now, most schools accept either test score with your application.

Studying for the Tests

There are numerous study guides and websites that can help you study for the ACT and SAT tests, providing you with sample questions and helping you learn techniques to more effectively complete them within the allotted time. There are also prep courses you can take for a cost. Check with your school to see if they offer any prep classes or recommend study materials.

When to Take the Tests

Most students take the test twice. Some students do begin taking the tests during their freshmen or sophomore years in high school to practice and get an idea of what to expect. However, waiting until the spring of your junior year in high school to test the first time is advisable so you are more acquainted with the material and concepts presented on the tests. Students can repeat the tests in the fall of their senior year if needed.

The ACT and SAT exams are administered separately and are offered several times throughout the year. It's important to check the registration deadlines to ensure you register on time for the date that fits your needs.

Paying for the Tests

There are registration costs associated with the ACT and SAT exams, including late fees if you miss the registration deadlines. It is possible to qualify for fee waivers for both tests, so be sure to check your eligibility before paying registration fees.

As of October 2017, the ACT costs $46 without the writing option and $62.50 with the writing section. There is an extra $29.50 fee for late registration and a fee of $53 if you show up for standby testing without registering ahead of time. The SAT test costs $60 for the version with the essay although you can opt out of the essay and pay $46 instead. There are also additional subject tests that cost $21 or $26 each depending on the subject. There is a separate registration fee of $26 for these as well.

Before trying your hand at either the ACT or SAT exams, make sure you understand their format and how you will be evaluated. Decide which exam to take (or whether to take both) based on your strengths. Then you should take a look at the test dates and register for the date and time that works best with your schedule. Before you start studying, research the different materials available to you and choose a method that will be effective for you.

Remember that these tests are an important step in applying to college, and they are one of many factors that schools evaluate as part of your application. Careful planning and preparation are key to being as successful as possible on test day.


SAT® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.


ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.