Should my student take the SAT or ACT?

By Maxine Seya

Should your student take the SAT or ACT? Both standardized tests are equally accepted by U.S. colleges for admissions. While they look similar, they’re not exactly the same. Read our advice on how to choose one over the other.

ACT vs. SAT: At A Glance

Both of these approximately 4-hour long, standardized tests are used by U.S. college admissions officers to make college admissions and scholarship decisions. The questions cover math, reading, writing, and, in the case of the ACT, science.

What does the ACT consist of?

The ACT consists of 4 multiple-choice sections as follows:

  • Reading: 40 questions – 35 minutes
  • Math: 60 questions – 60 minutes
  • English: 75 questions – 45 minutes
  • Science: 40 questions – 35 minutes
  • Writing: 1 optional essay – 40 minutes

If you’re only counting the number of minutes spent taking the test, excluding breaks, the ACT test length is 215 minutes with the optional essay. This is 3 hours and 35 minutes excluding breaks.

ACT scores range between 1 and 36. 36 is the highest score.

For more information on how scores are calculated, refer to the 2021-2022 Preparing For the ACT official pamphlet.

What does the SAT consist of?

The SAT consists of three tests. The sections are as follows:

  • Reading: 52 questions – 65 minutes
  • Math: 58 questions – 80 minutes
  • Writing and Language: 44 questions – 35 minutes

*Unlike the ACT, the SAT optional essay is no longer available, effective June 2021.

The SAT test length is 3 hours (180 minutes), excluding breaks.

SAT scores range between 400 and 1600, with 1600 being the highest score.

For more information on how scores are calculated, refer to the 2021-2022 SAT Student Guide published by College Board.

Difference Between SAT and ACT

Many students wonder if the ACT is much harder than the SAT.

On the surface, it might seem harder because the ACT has a science section that the SAT doesn’t have AND still offers the optional essay that the SAT doesn’t.

However, some students believe the ACT is easier than the SAT, because the ACT tests your knowledge on subjects learned in class. For example, in the ACT’s verbal section, you might find a passage from  Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, required reading in many high schools. By contrast, the SAT might present an obscure magazine article or an article written by one of the test writers.

The ACT has a science section, which the SAT doesn’t have. If a student didn’t pay much attention in science class or has difficulty juggling a test with so many different subjects, the ACT might seem harder. It’s already enough to be tested on reading, math, and writing, not to mention an added science section. The ACT also allows less time per question, so students should be quick readers and thinkers.

Let’s summarize why the ACT is harder than the SAT and vice versa…

Why the ACT is harder than the SAT

  • Science section
  • Essay option
  • Less time per question

Why the SAT is harder than the ACT

  • Tests knowledge on subjects that might not be learned in class

So which one is harder?

It depends on your student’s strengths. Those who can easily memorize information, love their science classes, and get straight A’s in class might find the ACT easier. Those who don’t do as well in academics at school, but are avid readers or effective communicators might find the SAT easier.

Do Colleges Prefer ACT or SAT?

There is no preference. Johnson University states on their website,

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.