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ACT vs. SAT Score Comparison

Learn the key differences between the ACT and SAT to help you decide which test is best for you with our comprehensive guide.
Education
9 minutes
ACT vs. SAT Score Comparison
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ACT or SAT? Which test should you take, and do you need to take them? Is one test easier than the other, or will one look better on your application? High school students and their parents often have so many questions about these tests, especially since the tests have changed over the years. 

Since the 1960s, colleges and universities have used ACT and SAT test scores to judge how well a student can do in school. High school students who are getting ready for college today may have heard their parents talk about how they did on these tests. Both tests have changed over the years, and navigating these details without an expert opinion can be difficult. 

Today, we’re going to discuss the difference between ACT and SAT scores to help you determine which test is best for your unique situation. Both are difficult tests that require months of preparation for most students, but there are some differences in scoring. 

Should You Take the ACT or SAT? 

If you’re comparing the ACT and SAT tests, you may wonder which one is best to take. That depends on a variety of factors, including the following: 

  • School Choice: Most schools will now accept the SAT or ACT, and some are making test score submissions optional. It’s always better to submit a score rather than applying without, so check online to see if any of your top school choices prefer one test over the other. If some of your schools conflict, you can use the ACT-SAT concordance tables to find equivalent scores between tests. 
  • Science Proficiency: The ACT includes a full science test, but the SAT does not. You will find science questions throughout other sections of the SAT, but there is no full test on that subject. If you’re strong in science, you may choose the ACT over the SAT. If you want to avoid science, the opposite decision may suit you best. 
  • Optional Writing Test: The SAT no longer offers a writing test, but you can still opt into it with the ACT. Most colleges don’t require the writing test when applying for admission, but you may want to complete it anyway if English, reading, and writing are among your top skills. You may also want to take the writing test if it applies to the major you want to pursue or your future career plans. 

On the SAT and ACT, there are some small differences in how the questions are set up. One way to determine which test style best fits your learning style is to take sample tests. Sites like PowerScore allow you to take free practice tests online. Not only will you see how prepared you are for the tests right now, but you'll also see if one test is a bit easier for you than the other. 

ACT vs. SAT Score Comparisons 

SAT vs. ACT scores: What’s the difference? This is a smart question to ask if you’re deciding which test to sign up for in preparation for college application season. In general, the SAT is an aptitude test that is meant to measure how well you know things that are usually taught in basic college courses. These are the courses that you will likely take in your first year or two of college, regardless of your major. The ACT is more focused on the curriculum presented in most high schools, so there is a difference in the questions offered and how they’re presented. 

Let’s look at some key differences in the SAT and ACT tests to help you understand how the scores are generated. That may help you decide which test is best for you. 

ACT vs. SAT – Time Limits & Test Breakdown  

The SAT and ACT are both timed tests, but one has more questions than the other. The following chart will sum up how much time you may have to complete each question on each test.

  ACT SAT
English/Writing & Language    
Number of Questions 75 44
Time to Complete Test 45 minutes 35 minutes
Time per Question Less than 1 minute Less than 1 minute
Math    
Number of Questions 60 20 without calculator, 38 with calculator
Time to Complete Test 60 minutes 25 minutes without calculator, 55 minutes with calculator
Time per Question 1 minute 1.25 minutes without calculator, 1.45 minutes with calculator
Reading    
Number of Questions 40 52
Time to Complete Test 35 minutes 65 minutes
Time per Question Less than 1 minute 1.25 minutes
Science    
Number of Questions 40 NOT OFFERED
Time to Complete Test 35 minutes
Time per Question Less than 1 minute
Writing (optional)    
Time per Question 40 minutes

This breakdown of the SAT and ACT tests provides some valuable insight for students worried about how they might score on each test.

  • If math isn’t your strongest subject, the SAT allows you to spend a bit more time on each question than the ACT. 
  • The SAT allows you to choose between more questions without a calculator and fewer questions with a calculator. That may make a big difference for students who struggle to do the work on paper but are proficient when using a good calculator. 
  • The SAT doesn’t have a separate test for science. It does include science questions throughout the other tests, but there is no dedicated science test. That may play to your advantage if you aren’t good at science and don’t want that score included in your results. 
  • The SAT dedicates more time to reading but also allows you to spend a bit more time per question. You will spend 30 minutes more on reading if you take the SAT than you would taking the ACT. 

Keep these observations in mind when deciding if you want to take the SAT or ACT. The small differences could have a big impact on your scores in different subjects. 

ACT vs. SAT – Scoring Strategies 

The SAT bases your total score on just two test results: 

  • Math 
  • Reading and writing 

You receive between 200 and 800 points for each of these tests, and your final score will range anywhere from 400 to 1600. 

ACT scoring is a bit more complicated because the test uses a grading scale that is adjusted for each test to account for differences in difficulty levels. The system works like this: 

  • You receive 1 point for every correct answer. There is no penalty or reward for wrong answers. 
  • Your raw score reflects the number of questions you answered correctly on all tests, including math, English, reading, and science. 
  • Your raw score converts to an official score between 1 and 36. 
  • Scores from all tests are averaged to create your composite score. 

Both of these scoring processes require some basic math, but you may prefer one over the other. 

ACT vs. SAT – Testing Resources 

Now that we’ve discussed the difference in scoring between the SAT and ACT, what does each test offer to help you score well on test day? There are a few things we can point out here that may help you choose one test over the other. 

  • You can use your calculator for all sections of the math test if you choose the ACT. The SAT requires you to choose between a test with calculators or a test that doesn’t allow calculators. 
  • The SAT test includes a reference section that includes basic math formulas and diagrams. You don’t get that reference section if you take the ACT. 
  • The ACT math score is about a quarter of your overall score, but the math section is about half of your grade if you choose the SAT. 
  • The reading test questions follow the order in which the answers are found in the text if you choose the SAT. The ACT presents questions in random order that don’t always align with the flow of the text, so finding the answers if you have to go back is a bit more difficult with the ACT. 

Again, your choice in tests may come down to how the questions are presented and how much of your final score is determined by the test for your weakest subject. Overall, both tests are challenging and require a lot of preparation and studying if you want to score well. 

Preparing for the SAT or ACT 

Both the SAT and the ACT are meant to test how well you know a wide range of subjects, from trigonometry and algebra to biology and chemistry. If you know you’re not well prepared for a specific subject, you should spend more time studying that subject so that it doesn’t pull your overall or composite score down. 

If math is one of your weaknesses, we recommend working with a tutor before taking these standard tests. Learner can connect you with an online tutor who is familiar with the SAT and ACT math exams. Working with a tutor can help you understand math better and give you more confidence. This could make you less nervous when it's time to take a math test.  

Don't let the stress of ACT or SAT testing hold you back from reaching your full potential. Sign up for a tutor on Learner.com and get the personalized help you need to prepare and excel on test day.

Get started with a custom-matched tutor for your child.

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About the author:

Mike developed his passion for education as a math instructor at Penn State University. He expanded his educational experience launching and running an Executive Education business - training over 100,000 students per year. As the CEO of Learner, Mike focuses on accelerating learning and unleashing the potential of students. 

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