How To Choose Between the SAT and ACT Tests

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SAT II subject test, SAt and Act

You are definitely out of luck if you are hoping to figure out which one of the two exams is easier! Both SAT and ACT measure the problem-solving abilities, proficiencies, and skills of students intending to sign up for college.

There are several million that take these tests every year and so, the standards are high and the competition is stiff. Therefore, neither of the options is easy by any standards.

The colleges have no specific preferences when it comes to these tests as both scores are used equally to determine the candidate’s eligibility. So, irrespective of the test you pick, you can apply to schools of your choice.

The two exams are similar in many ways and yet different on other levels. For instance, structurally, you will find that while the SAT features a Math section, the ACT test includes a Science component. Thus, understanding the fundamental differences in the test and your own capabilities will help you choose wisely.

Preference between SAT and ACT?

A simple explanation is that the SAT has existed long before ACT came into being. So, naturally, the SAT has always been preferred over its counterpart. It was in 2012 that ACT briefly took over when a few thousand students preferred ACT to SAT (1,666,017 vs 1,664,479). However, ever since then, the number of students taking one or the other has been pretty similar and it is hard to state which test is more preferred based on the number alone.

Is it Regional?

Looking at the number of students attempting the tests in the past years, there is a trend of people in different regions opting for one or the other. Colleges and schools in the Mid-west region such as the University of Chicago, Ohio State University, Michigan State University tend to prefer ACT scores.

For instance, 35% of students submitted SAT scores while 80% of those admitted handed in ACT scores (there may have been some who have taken both tests). This kind of a regional bias may be due to several reasons such as the fact that many colleges in the mid-west require their students to take ACT under the statewide assessments.

On the other hand, the North Eastern States such as Massachusetts (Harvard, MIT), New Jersey (Princeton University) seem to naturally prefer the SAT. For instance, if you look at Harvard and Stanford Universities, 83% and 86% of admitted students submitted SAT scores while 35% and 39% handed in ACT scores respectively.

So, if you are applying to colleges in certain states, it makes sense to understand which one is more popular in that region. Here’s a look at the SAT vs ACT preference map for the year 2018



Do the colleges have a preference?

Despite the fact that all colleges and schools declare that they accept SAT and ACT scores without any bias, the SAT is a tad bit more popular when it comes to Ivy Leagues colleges.

For the academic year 2017-18, 67% of the students admitted into the Harvard undergraduate program submitted SAT scores while 53% of them submitted ACT (there are quite a few that attempt both). A point to note here is that Harvard recommends all ACT test-takers to submit at least two SAT II subject tests.

Similarly, if you look at the admission numbers of the University of Pennsylvania, 54% and 46% of students submitted SAT and ACT scores respectively. The university recommends SAT subject tests but does not require them (recommendations for tests are available depending on the program).

This becomes a valid reason for most to want to opt for the SAT and then the SAT subject tests. This is especially true for Engineering and STEM undergraduate programs.

Average SAT Scores (Engineering)

The numbers for the past years show that the accepted students have scored more than 700 in each of the sections of SAT.

The average SAT scores for top Engineering schools are as follows: Likewise, you can check out SAT scores for Business schools by following the link here:

  School Location 25th Percentile SAT Score 75th Percentile SAT Score
Princeton University Princeton, NJ 1380 1540
Harvard University Cambridge, MA 1470 1570
University of Chicago Chicago, IL 1460 1560
Yale University New Haven, CT 1460 1600
Columbia University New York, NY 1490 1580
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA 1500 1570
Stanford University Stanford, CA 1390 1540
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 1370 1520
Duke University Durham, NC 1315 1570
California Institute of Technology Pasadena, CA 1540 1580


The 25Th percentile SAT score column gives you what 25% of the students of a particular school have scored lesser than. For example, in Harvard’s case, 25% of the students scored lesser than in 1470. Similarly, the 75th Percentile SAT score gives you what 25% of the class has scored over. So, in the same example, 25% of the class has scored over 1570. Therefore, 50% of the admitted students have scored in the range of 1470-1570 on the SAT.

Differences in Structure

This is one of the most important things to consider. The SAT exam has three sections (excluding the optional essay):

  • Reading
  • Writing and Language
  • Math (No calculator and calculator sections)

The ACT exam, on the other hand, features four sections (excluding the optional essay):

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading and
  • Science


The total time available to complete the tests does not vary by much at all. For instance, the SAT will take 3 hours to complete (if you do not attempt the essay), you can add another 50 minutes if you attempt the essay section as well. The ACT, on the other hand, will take 2 hours and 55 minutes without the writing section (3 hours and 55 minutes if you attempt the writing section).

If you look at the details of each section and the time allotted for each of those, this is how it matches up

ACT                                                     SAT

English Section: 45 mins Reading Section: 65 mins
Math Section: 60 mins Writing and Language Section: 35 mins
Reading Section: 35 mins Math No-Calculator Section: 25 mins
Science Section: 35 mins Math Calculator Section: 55 mins
Writing (optional): 40 mins Essay (optional): 50 mins


Scoring Patterns

The College Board and the ACT organizations conduct the SAT and ACT every year. As per a published report, the average scores for those who took the tests in 2018 were 1068 and 20.8 respectively.

These numbers give you a broad idea of how students perform on these tests. Apart from this, you can also go through conversion charts published by them. This tells you how the ACT scores match up against those of the SAT scores.

You can score a maximum of 36 in the ACT exam. The overall score is an average of the marks obtained against each section in the Test. The optional writing section does not count towards the composite score.

As regards the SAT exam, you will be scored in the range of 400-1600. Reading and writing are two separate sections in the exam but they are combined to account for 800 marks. The Math section accounts for 800 marks.

Testing Dates

Both the ACT and SAT are offered about 7 times during the year and based on when you intend to apply for college, you can register for a test. SAT requires you to register about 4 weeks before you take the test. ACT, on the other hand, gives you 5-6 weeks before you can take the test. You can log on to the individual websites of ACT and SAT to gather information about test dates, centers, and other important information.

SAT and ACT – Costs

ACT: The registration fee for the test if you do not attempt the writing section will be $150.00. The same will amount to $166.50 if you choose to attempt the optional writing section in the test. Typically, there is an international fee if you attempt the exam outside of the US and that cost ($57.50) has been included in the above.

SAT: The registration fee for the SAT test is lesser in comparison as the cost of taking the test (with the optional essay) is $64.50 plus the international fee of $ 43-$ 53, which works out to a maximum of $117.50. In the case that you would like to register for the test excluding the optional essay section, then the fees work out to $102.50 (49.50 plus a maximum of $53 as an international fee).

The international fee will depend on the test location outside of the US. There are a number of other additional and optional charges you can sign up for. These can be for registration by phone; verification charges; receiving the scores by phone or late fees among many others.

Here’s a quick look at how the SAT and ACT differ

Which one is easier?

The answer to this question is not as easy or as straightforward as you may expect. Some guidelines for you to pick one or the other (though these may not be perfect or completely correct).

Pick ACT:

  • If Science, analyzing data, trends, figures and interpreting them are your strengths.
  • Aptitude tests are your strong points and you seem to finish mock tests well within the time frame provided.
  • If you have a fear of the calculator being plucked from your hands! (SAT has a Math section that you have to solve without the calculator).

Pick the SAT:

  • If mental math is your strength as you are bound to race through the Math section (at least the one that you have to solve without a calculator).
  • If you have a flair for clearing standardized tests without losing marks for ‘trick questions’.
  • The reading section is known to be tougher in the SAT exams. However, you can score higher here if you can read fairly well. There is more time available to answer each question and there are shorter passages (compared to ACT) in this section.

Should you attempt both?

There are a couple of reasons for assuming that you will be better off attempting both these tests.

Reason no 1. Colleges such as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Caltech do appreciate having both scores submitted. The Dean of Princeton University has gone on record to say that while one test score is fine, giving both scores gives more information about the student’s abilities which eventually works in their favor.

Reason no 2. There are similarities between both tests. This should make it easy for you to attempt one and then another easily. Furthermore, on the occasion that you are unable to break a certain barrier as far as one test score goes, you may want to attempt the other one too.

Despite the above reasoning, attempting both the tests will mean splitting your time between preparing for one and then the other. Further, even the best colleges do not require both the test scores as a mandate. Therefore, it is a smarter decision to focus your efforts on one test to submit an exceptional score. It is definitely better than sending in average scores on both tests!

Latest on SAT/ACT

Even though the Coronavirus outbreak has caused several universities to go test-optional and temporarily put off these exams in admissions considerations, both college admissions exams remain popular.  Although it is unknown how many students took both exams, experts’ belief is that it is normal for high school students to do so.
Taking full-length practice exams of each type is the best method to determine whether taking the SAT, ACT, or both tests is good for you. You can evaluate which test is a better fit for you based on factors such as time management under pressure and what types of questions (which topics) you find the most difficult.


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