ACT vs SAT Exam (2020 Guide)

As you complete your final years in High School, if you’re looking to attend a college and continue your studies, you’ll need to take either the SAT or ACT.

Both the ACT and SAT are standardized tests that will be submitted to colleges alongside your college application. The tests give a numerical validation of your intelligence, determination, and ability to study under pressure.

These days most schools and colleges accept either SAT or ACT scores, so you can choose which test you’d like to take. We’ve put together this handy guide to look at the SAT vs ACT and help you to decide which test will be most relevant for you to take.

When considering the SAT vs ACT, there are many similarities in the test structure, topics covered, and length. However, there are some differences, including the Science section, which may sway your decision. Some students choose to take both the SAT and ACT to demonstrate to college admissions that they can handle both, but this is not necessary.

What are the ACT and SAT tests?

Filling exam questionnaire

The ACT and SAT are both tests that high school students take as part of their application to a college. Both tests are standardized across the US and monitored by independent governing organizations. College admissions review your full application, including your ACT or SAT score, and use this to decide which students to offer a place to. This is why it’s important to get a high score in the test that you take, especially if you want to get into a top tier college.

Both the ACT and SAT are pen and paper tests taken at a certified testing center, which is often your local school. Both tests have a similar format and are made up of multiple-choice questions. Read and understand the question, choose your answer, and mark this on the answer sheet. Simple!

However, the element that makes the ACT and SAT tests so difficult is the speed required. You’ll have less than a minute to answer each question, so you need to be prepared and rapid with your answers.

Test Length and Structure

The ACT and SAT tests are similar in length and structure – both exams are over 3 hours in length, and both have 5 topics, including an optional essay section. If you take the ACT, you’ll complete the science section, and if you take the SAT, you’ll complete two math sections. Have a look at the structure and topics and choose which test would display your strengths best.

The ACT is split into 4 sections, with an essay optional writing section. The test is pretty long – at over 3 hours.

  • English section – 45 minutes – 75 questions
  • Math section – 60 minutes – 60 questions
  • Reading section – 35 minutes – 40 questions
  • Science Section – 35 minutes – 40 questions
  • Essay Writing – 40 minutes – 1 essay

The SAT is split into 4 sections, also with essay optional writing section. The SAT is also over 3 hours long so make sure you’re prepared.

  • Reading – 65 minutes – 52 questions
  • Writing and Language – 35 minutes – 44 questions
  • Math No Calculator – 25 minutes – 20 questions
  • Math Calculator – 55 minutes – 38 questions
  • Essay Writing – 50 minutes – 1 essay

As you can see from these timings, when you complete the test, you’ll have to answer all the questions within the time limits quickly. Within this time, you’ll also need to read the questions thoroughly, and any supplementary materials like the reading writing passages.

The SAT and ACT tests are designed to be difficult and put students through their paces. When you attend college, you’ll need to work at a more advanced level with more pressure, and the SAT and ACT tests are a way that you can prove that you are capable of this.

Test Topics

English test sheet

When looking at the topics covered in the SAT and ACT, there are many similarities and a few differences. It’s important to understand how the ACT vs. SAT compares when considering which test to take.

Firstly, the reading-writing sections test similar elements – your ability to use correct grammar, sentence structures, and punctuation by choosing the correct answer from a multiple-choice selection. These sections are easy to complete if you are well-read, have English as your first language, and have a natural reading and writing skill.

If, at first, you are worried about completing this section, make sure you are reading regularly throughout your schooling. Both tests will require you to quickly read several text extracts and then answer questions on each excerpt. To succeed in these sections, you need to master the ability to quickly understand the tone, purpose, and context of the written extracts.

Next up, the Math sections on both the ACT vs. SAT are comparable. In the SAT, there are two math sections, one with a calculator and one without using a calculator. In total, across these two sections, at 55 minutes and 25 minutes, you’ll spend 1 hour and 20 minutes on math, answering 58 questions.

In the ACT, there is just one math section, which you will spend 1 hour working on and answer a total of 60 questions. When comparing the math sections side by side, there are not many differences in the ACT vs. SAT. If Math is your weaker subject, you may want to take the SAT, as, within the test, they provide some everyday math formulas to save you memorizing them.

Furthermore, the optional essay section on both the SAT and ACT share many of the same elements. The ACT gives 40 minutes for your essay response, and the SAT gives 50 minutes for your essay response, so there is a little more time in the SAT. The major difference between these two essays is the perspective of the writer.

In the SAT, you’ll be given an extract where an issue is being discussed, and you’ll be asked to break down the quality of the arguments presented. You will need to analyze the extract and assess the merit and strength of the discussion.

In the ACT, however, you’ll be asked to write your own argument in response to the prompt or extract. You can either write in full agreement, partial agreement, or difference, but your constructive argument will assess your writing quality.

To recap, in the SAT essay, you’re analyzing someone else’s argument – the structure, quality of points, etc. In the ACT, you are writing your own arguments and will need to include a strong structure and high-quality points.

To figure out which of these writing styles you are strongest at, have a look through essays you’ve written for school in the past few months. Which subjects do you excel in, which style of the essay are you most confident at writing? This will help you to decide if the ACT vs. SAT is best for you.

Finally, a fundamental difference between the SAT and ACT is the Science section. Only the ACT has a science section, and it’s recommended that if you are taking a science major at college, you should take the ACT to demonstrate your skills in this area.

Also, if science is a particularly strong point for you and you know that you could easily achieve a high score in this area, it makes sense for you to undertake the ACT test rather than the SAT, which does not have a science section.

Scoring Systems

A key difference between the SAT and ACT is the scoring, which on the surface can seem to be at polar opposites. The ACT has a total of 36 points in the overall score, and the SAT has an overall score of 1600 points.

ACT scoring is simple to understand, as every section gives you a raw score. The raw scores are converted into composite scores for each section, and these are then collated into your overall score out of 36 points. The overall score is the one that colleges will use to assess your application.

SAT scoring is slightly more complex, as the scoring is split into two sections, combined and then added into a scaled score. Similarly, colleagues will just look at your overall score out of 1600 points when considering your application. When you’re studying for the SAT, you’ll need to understand each section’s scores so that you can measure your progress as you prepare for the test.

A key difference is the separation of scores that students can get from each test. For example, many students will be awarded a 33 out of 36 points in the ACT, but if they took the SAT, their scores could range between 1450 and 1480 points. So if you make errors in the test, this is more visible in your SAT score compared to your ACT score.

Target Scores

Exam results concept

With standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, it’s good to set yourself a target for the score you’d like to achieve in each section and overall. When setting a target score, complete some research on the schools and colleges you’d like to attend.

What are their expectations? What scores have previous graduates achieved? The most esteemed schools will expect higher ACT scores and SAT scores to support your application. But what makes a good score? Before you take the ACT or SAT, be sure to set yourself a target score.

In the ACT, a high score is 31 points or above, out of the total 36 points available. A score of 31 or above demonstrates that you are capable of studying at a high level and would be a good candidate for an Ivy League school. Most students will gain ACT scores of around 28 points, which roughly equals a B+ grade and is a brilliant score to get accepted to most colleges.

In the SAT, the score ranges are wider and so colleges may be more flexible with the SAT scores they accept. The average SAT score is 1060 points out of 1600, but to score in the top 10 percent of test-takers, you need to aim for at least 1300 out of 1600 points. Again, you should have a look at the expectations of your college and the grades of previous students.

Whether you take the SAT or ACT, you will also receive a percentile score. For example, you may be in the top 5 percent of test-takers, or in the 67% percentile.

These percentages are a comparison tool to compare your score to all other students that have taken the SAT vs. ACT before you. They are an effective way of quickly comparing scores across the US and can be broken down into sub-sections such as age, ethnicity, or school district.

Some students will need to use an ACT SAT converter to change their ACT score into SAT or SAT conversion to ACT. This is another way to compare the two scores, but it can be quite unreliable and does not provide an accurate estimation of your score if you’d have taken the test. This is partly because the topics covered are different and because the score ranges are so wide.

Completeing Test Prep

Asian girl study in library

When you’re considering the ACT vs. SAT, you also need to think about the study prep involved with each course. It’s vital to spend time practicing for the test, building up your knowledge, and also your answering strategies. Both tests are fast-paced, so completing practice questions and tests will be important to nail the test.

The best way to complete test prep is to enroll in an ACT or SAT prep course that will provide you with all the information needed to ace the test. There are lots of test prep options available from a wide range of course providers, including The Princeton Review, Manhattan Prep, Magoosh, Kaplan, PrepExpert, Testive, and more.

With so many options, it can be challenging to understand which prep course might be best for your learning style, and which courses offer the best materials and resources.

We’ve put together guides for the ACT vs SAT prep courses to help you to determine ultimately which courses will be right for you. We’ve assessed the number of practice questions, and the number of practice tests available, the key method of learning, and the support from tutors or teachers.

Most prep courses have an option to participate in Live Online Teacher-led classroom sessions. You can experience the learning with a whole group of SAT or ACT students, and get knowledge first hand from an experienced teacher.

Most SAT and ACT prep courses also have a self-paced option, where students can access all the resources and work through them at their own speed. This option is best for students that are self-motivated, disciplined and prefer to work alone. Check out our Best ACT prep courses and Best SAT prep courses for more information on the available options.

We recommend starting your ACT vs SAT prep up to 6 months in advance of the test so that you can get a full understanding of what to expect in the ACTs testing, the knowledge you will need for the ACTs test, and how to get the score you deserve. Whether you decide to take the SAT or ACT courses, completing high-quality prep will be the key to your success.


Overall, the ACT vs SAT tests look similar on the surface but actually have a few fundamental differences. It’s important to understand these differences when you’re considering which test to take, as they may work to your advantage or disadvantage.

We recommend comparing the ACT vs SAT on each of the elements we’ve discussed in this article, and consider how each of these could impact you. For example, if you’re a strong student in science and are looking to take a science major, you may want to take the ACT test to display your skills.

Furthermore, if your college requires the ACT or SAT test in particular, you will need to study and prepare for this test to be considered for a college place.

Take a look at our articles, which explain SAT scoring, ACT s scoring, SAT registration, and ACT registration in more detail. We’ve also looked at the best prep courses for the ACT and SAT tests, hoping that this helps you in your decision between the two exams. Make sure to complete comprehensive test prep to get the best score you possibly can.

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