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  • Despite many schools adopting test-optional policies, submitting a good ACT or SAT test score can strengthen a college application.
  • Understand the differences between the exams, along with school requirements, to help you decide which test and course of action is best for you.
  • Among the many resources to help you study, and College Board® offer free practice exams to help you prepare for the ACT or SAT test.

For decades, the ACT and SAT tests have been fixtures of the college admissions process. But in recent years, a growing trend has shown that hundreds of colleges and universities have adopted test-optional or test-blind policies. Schools with test-optional policies have relaxed admission requirements by allowing students to choose whether or not they submit their test score while schools with test-blind policies vow not to look at test scores when considering applications.

But test optional or test blind doesn’t mean these standardized tests have been dismissed completely. Many schools still require them. So, should you take these tests? And if so, which one? Checking the requirements of your desired schools and understanding the differences between them can help you decide whether to take one or the other, both, or neither.

Differences between the ACT and SAT exams

The ACT and SAT exams contain questions generated from a standard test bank that measure the knowledge and skills you’ve learned in high school. Both exams are used to evaluate your college readiness and give colleges a standardized data point that can be used to compare applicants. Both tests are timed and points are awarded to questions you’ve answered correctly. That means you won’t be penalized for wrong answers so you’re better off answering a question with a guess than not answering it at all. Before putting your number two pencil to paper, it's important to understand the differences, including:

  ACT exam SAT exam
Test sections





Essay (optional)

Reading and writing


Number of questions

English: 75

Math: 60

Reading: 40

Science: 40

Essay (optional): 1

Reading and writing: 54

Math: 58

Allotted time (minutes)

English: 45

Math: 60

Reading: 35

Science: 35

Essay (optional): 40

Reading and writing: 64

Math: 70

Total test length (excludes essay and breaks) 2 hours, 55 minutes

3 hours for current paper and pencil version


2 hours, 14 minutes for digital version starting spring 2024

Scoring scale 1-36 per section

Reading and Writing: 200-800


Math: 200-800

Format Paper and pencil Paper and pencil but online starting spring 2024


$93 (with essay)

More info

Not sure which exam to take?

Before trying your hand at either the ACT or SAT test, consider their formats and what you will be evaluated on, and which might play to your strengths. For example, if you are stronger in math and science, you may prefer to take the ACT because it contains a section in science. Or you may prefer to try your hand at both. The best way to assess which test is best for you is to research the different study materials available, take a few practice exams, and choose a method that will be effective for you.

How to prepare for the ACT and SAT tests

Chances are you’ve been preparing for the ACT or SAT test since eighth or ninth grade with the PreACT® or PSAT® exams administered at your high school. Both are preliminary exams designed to give you practice. And, if you’re a junior, the PSAT may earn you scholarships.

Here are more ways to prepare for the ACT and SAT exams:

  • Use online guides and websites that provide sample questions and effective time management techniques.
  • Take online practice tests and then study your incorrect answers. Official prep booklets and practice tests are available for free through (ACT) and College Board (SAT).
  • Check to see if your school offers ACT or SAT review sessions, or tutoring for free.
  • Take prep courses or hire a tutor, both of which may have additional costs.

When to take the ACT and SAT tests

Traditionally, most students take the test twice. Typically, people take the test for the first time during the spring of junior year of high school. This gives them time to learn the material and concepts tested, but also provides enough of a buffer in case they want to repeat the test during the fall of senior year.

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.

How much do the ACT and SAT tests cost?

There are registration costs associated with the ACT and SAT exams, including late fees if you miss the registration deadlines. There are also additional fees associated with changing your test date, as well as releasing your scores to colleges you apply to. (Both tests include four score reports but charge for any additional ones.) It is possible to qualify for fee waivers for both tests, so be sure to check your eligibility before paying them.

How are the ACT and SAT exams scored?

The scoring model for each test is different:

ACT scoring

  • The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36 for each section: English, reading, math, and science.
  • The composite score reflects the average of the four section scores listed above.
  • The average composite ACT score for the class of 2022 was 20.
  • Superscoring, which takes the average of the four best subject scores, is available to students who have taken the ACT more than once as of September 2016. Not all schools accept super scores so check your school’s test scoring policy.
  • The optional essay is scored on a scale of 2 to 12 based on four domains:
    • Ideas and analysis (building an argument/thesis)
    • Development and support (supporting your ideas with examples or reasoning)
    • Organization (presenting your points in an organized manner)
    • Language use (demonstrating you can write clearly)
  • If you choose to write the optional essay, your essay score will not influence your section or composite scores.

SAT scoring

  • The SAT test is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 for each section: reading and writing, and math.
  • You will receive a total score that reflects the sum of the two section scores listed above.
  • The average SAT score for the class of 2022 was 1050.
  • The optional essay has been discontinued but may be required by your state as part of the SAT School Day administration.
  • If you are required to write an essay, scoring is separate and based on a scale of 2 to 8 based on three domains:
    • Reading (demonstrating comprehension)
    • Analysis (providing well thought out analysis and understanding)
    • Writing (demonstrating effective use and command of language)

Do the ACT and SAT tests help you land a scholarship?

Traditionally, standardized test scores have been a requirement for many merit scholarships. Some colleges that have switched to test-optional admissions no longer require the SAT or ACT test as a prerequisite for receiving these awards. But others still require scores for scholarships, even if they don’t require them for admissions, and private scholarships may require them. Before deciding whether or not to take the ACT or SAT exam, look into the scholarship programs you intend to apply for and see if you’ll need scores to qualify.

Should you take the ACT or SAT test?

If the schools you’re applying to are test optional then it’s up to you whether or not to try to take one or both exams. Some students may be relieved that they don’t need to prepare for and take a nerve-wracking test. But, according to the College Board, most students still want to take the SAT exam, see how they score, and then decide if they want to submit their results because a good score can strengthen a college application and increase your chances of being awarded scholarships.

Once you’ve decided on a test, look at the test dates, and register for the date and time that works best with your schedule. Testing centers can fill up quickly, so do this well in advance.

ACT® and PreACT® are trademarks registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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

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

PSAT® is a registered trademark of the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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