Understanding College Admissions Tests: SAT vs. ACT

The journey to college often involves a crucial step: taking a college admissions test. For most students in the United States, this means deciding between the SAT and the ACT. Both tests are widely accepted by colleges and universities, but they have distinct differences. Understanding these differences, as well as the nuances of each test can help students make an informed choice that aligns with their strengths and college goals.

History and Overview

SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

The SAT, administered by the College Board, was first introduced in 1926. It was designed to assess a student’s readiness for college and predict their future academic performance. Over the years, the SAT has undergone several changes, including significant revisions in 1994, 2005, and 2016, to better reflect the skills and knowledge needed for college success.

ACT (American College Testing)

The ACT, administered by ACT, Inc., was introduced in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT. It was created to be an achievement test that measures what students have learned in school. The ACT has also evolved, with changes to its format and scoring to remain relevant to contemporary educational standards.

Structure and Content

SAT Structure

The SAT is composed of three main sections:

  1. Reading: This section includes passages from literature, historical documents, social sciences, and natural sciences. It tests reading comprehension and the ability to interpret and analyze texts.
  2. Writing and Language: This section assesses grammar, punctuation, and rhetorical skills through passages that require editing and revision.
  3. Math: The math section is divided into two parts: one that allows the use of a calculator and one that does not. It covers arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry.

The SAT also includes an optional Essay section, where students analyze a provided argument and write a critique.

ACT Structure

The ACT consists of four main sections:

  1. English: This section tests grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills.
  2. Math: The ACT math section includes questions on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Unlike the SAT, the entire math section allows the use of a calculator.
  3. Reading: This section assesses reading comprehension through passages from prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science.
  4. Science: Unique to the ACT, this section evaluates scientific reasoning skills through questions on data interpretation, experimental analysis, and scientific investigations.

The ACT also offers an optional Writing section, where students write an essay based on a given prompt.


SAT Scoring

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600, with each of the two main sections (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math) scored from 200 to 800. The optional Essay is scored separately on three dimensions (reading, analysis, and writing), each ranging from 2 to 8.

ACT Scoring

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with each of the four main sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science) receiving a score from 1 to 36. The composite score is the average of these four section scores. The optional Writing section is scored separately on a scale of 2 to 12.

Test Length and Timing

SAT Timing

The SAT takes approximately 3 hours to complete, with an additional 50 minutes for the optional Essay. The breakdown of time per section is as follows:

  • Reading: 65 minutes
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes
  • Math: 80 minutes (55 minutes with calculator, 25 minutes without)

ACT Timing

The ACT takes approximately 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete, with an additional 40 minutes for the optional Writing section. The breakdown of time per section is as follows:

  • English: 45 minutes
  • Math: 60 minutes
  • Reading: 35 minutes
  • Science: 35 minutes

Content Differences

Reading and English/Writing

  • SAT: The Reading section focuses more on evidence-based questions, where students must find evidence in the passage to support their answers. The Writing and Language section includes passages that require grammatical corrections and improvements.
  • ACT: The Reading section includes straightforward questions about passage content and main ideas, while the English section focuses on grammar, punctuation, and rhetorical skills.


  • SAT: The SAT math section includes more emphasis on algebra and data analysis, with some questions on advanced math topics like trigonometry and complex numbers. The non-calculator section tests mental math skills.
  • ACT: The ACT math section covers a broader range of topics, including more geometry and trigonometry questions. Students can use a calculator for the entire section.


  • SAT: The SAT does not have a separate science section but incorporates data interpretation and problem-solving skills in the Reading, Writing, and Math sections.
  • ACT: The ACT includes a dedicated Science section that tests scientific reasoning through data analysis, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints.

Preparation and Strategy

Study Resources

Both the SAT and ACT offer a variety of official study resources, including practice tests, study guides, and online tools. Third-party resources such as prep books, tutoring services, and online courses are also available to help students prepare.

Test-Taking Strategies

  • SAT: Students should focus on time management, especially in the Reading and Math sections. Practice with evidence-based questions and non-calculator math problems can be beneficial.
  • ACT: Time management is crucial, particularly in the Reading and Science sections, where passages and data sets must be quickly analyzed. Familiarity with the types of questions and the use of a calculator throughout the Math section can aid in preparation.

College Admissions Considerations


Most colleges and universities in the United States accept both SAT and ACT scores. Some schools do not prefer one test over the other, while others may have specific requirements or recommendations.

Score Choice and Superscoring

  • SAT: The College Board offers Score Choice, allowing students to choose which scores to send to colleges. Many colleges also practice superscoring, combining the highest section scores from multiple test dates.
  • ACT: ACT, Inc. also allows students to choose which scores to send, and many colleges practice super scoring for the ACT as well.

Which Test Should You Take?

Personal Strengths and Preferences

  • SAT: May be better suited for students who excel in reading comprehension, algebra, and evidence-based analysis. The optional Essay involves analyzing an argument.
  • ACT: This may be better suited for students who perform well in science, prefer a straightforward question style, and are comfortable with a faster-paced test.

Geographic and School Preferences

Some regions and schools may have a historical preference for one test. Researching the preferences of the colleges you are interested in can provide additional guidance.


Choosing between the SAT and ACT is a significant decision in college admissions. Both tests have unique features and advantages, and understanding these differences can help students play to their strengths and maximize their scores. Thorough preparation, practice, and strategic test-taking can ultimately lead to success on either test, paving the way for college admissions and future academic achievements.