ACT vs SAT: Which Test Should I Take?

Many college applications require standardized test scores, but most offer students a choice: ACT or SAT. Some students choose to take both tests, but that’s not an option for everyone. After all, testing can be time-consuming and expensive — especially once you factor in tutoring services and practice materials. So, how do you decide to take the ACT vs. SAT?

While the two tests serve the same function, they’re vastly different. Some students who earn top marks on the SAT flunk the ACT and vice versa. When college acceptance can depend on your scores, it’s important to choose wisely. Here’s how to tell which test is right for you.

ACT vs SAT: Key differences: 

While few colleges express a preference for the ACT vs SAT, many high school students score better on one than the other. That’s usually due to these critical differences: 

Test structure and format 

Both tests are timed and largely composed of multiple-choice questions, and neither test penalizes wrong answers. However, the tests have very different formats. The ACT covers four distinct subjects, plus one optional essay. 

  • English: 45 minutes
  • Math: 60 minutes
  • Reading: 35 minutes
  • Science: 35 minutes
  • Writing (optional): 40 minutes

The SAT test, meanwhile, covers only two subjects, each divided into modules. 

  • Evidence-based reading and writing: 64 minutes, split into two 32-minute modules
  • Math: 70 minutes, split into two 35-minute modules

Digital format 

In the past, both tests had students filling out dozens of tiny bubbles with No. 2 pencils. The ACT will carry on this tradition, but, starting in 2024, the SAT will be administered via computer. The new digital SAT will also tailor its questions to your ability. The more right answers you get in the first half of the test, the more challenging (and therefore higher-point-value) questions you’ll be given in the second half.

Science section 

The ACT is the only one of the two tests that has a science section. This section tests your ability to analyze scientific data, not your actual knowledge of the subject area. Each question provides you with a series of graphs and all the information you need to interpret them correctly. For each set of data, you’ll be asked several questions to assess your understanding.   

Critical reading 

Rather than having a specific science section, the SAT emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving throughout its math, writing, and reading sections. As a result, the SAT reading section may feel more analytical than the ACT reading section. It also differs in length. 

While the ACT features only four reading passages, the SAT has five. And while the entire SAT reading and writing section has grammar and vocabulary questions interspersed, the ACT features separate reading and English sections, which some students prefer.

Optional essay 

The ACT is the only test that still offers an essay portion. This optional ACT writing section adds another 40 minutes to the 2-hour-and-55-minute test. (The SAT used to have an optional writing test and subject tests, but those were discontinued in 2021.) 

Math topics

The SAT math section puts more emphasis on problem-solving and data analysis. There’s more variety in question type. Some math questions require you to write in your own answer while others are multiple-choice. There’s both a calculator math section and a no-calculator section. 

The other nice thing about the SAT is that it provides a “cheat sheet” listing all the math formulas you’ll need to solve the problems therein. For the ACT, you’ll have to memorize these. During the ACT math portion, however, you can keep your calculator out the whole time, and all questions are multiple-choice. 

While both tests assess your algebra and trigonometry knowledge, the ACT puts more emphasis on geometry than the SAT. And only the ACT tests your knowledge of probability and statistics, including concepts like matrices and logarithms. 

Subject weighting

Just because the ACT has a more rigorous math section doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice for math lovers. That’s because the SAT has only two sections: reading/writing and math. That makes the math section responsible for a full half of your SAT score. The same is true for reading. On the four-section ACT, however, math only makes up a quarter of your composite score. Likewise, the ACT reading section is only a quarter of your total score. 

If you consider yourself a high-level reader or a math test whiz, the SAT could give you a better chance of scoring in a high percentile. In contrast, if you’re a jack of all trades but a master of none, the ACT could play more to your strengths.

Time limit and pace 

The tests differ in both length and number of questions. The ACT covers 215 total questions in just two hours and 55 minutes. That makes it a fast-paced test. This can be an advantage for students who work well under pressure and can manage their time effectively. The SAT, on the other hand, covers 154 questions over a three-hour testing block. Because there are fewer questions, test-takers have slightly more time to spend on each. 

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

Here’s how to decide which standardized test is a better fit for your skillset.  


First, make a list of all your top-choice colleges. Then, research their requirements. Nearly all schools accept both SAT and ACT scores, though some may prefer one over the other. If you’re hoping to enter a STEM career, for example, your school may prefer you take the ACT. If you’re not sure, call the college admissions office to ask.  

Determine what kind of test-taker you are 

Are you an anxious test taker, or do you thrive under pressure? If you prefer to take your time and be more deliberate with your answers, the SAT may be the better fit. But if you find that a snappy timeline helps keep you focused, you may want to consider the ACT. 

Also consider whether you feel comfortable doing math with no calculator. If working by hand in a timed setting makes you feel flustered, you may prefer the ACT. 

Consider the content emphasis 

The SAT generally places a higher premium on vocabulary and reading comprehension, while the ACT caters more to science- and math-minded students. If you excel in science and love interpreting data, the ACT might be a better fit for you.

Practice and evaluate 

Take full-length, timed practice tests for both the SAT and ACT. That’s the best way to get a feel for the format, timing, and style of both tests. If you took the PSAT in middle school, you may already have an idea of your SAT aptitude. 

However, the test changes slightly each year, so it can be helpful to take an updated practice test if possible. Once you’re done, compare your ACT and SAT practice test scores. This may indicate which test better suits your strengths. 

Seek guidance

Ask your high school counselor, teachers, or test prep professionals for insight. They know these tests well and have a good read on your academic strengths. They should be able to help you choose the test that’s right for you.

Consider test preparation

Both testing organizations — College Board and ACT — offer free practice tests and questions. However, not all test prep resources are free. If you’re hoping to take advantage of online classes or tutoring services, look for ACT and SAT prep options near you. If one is more affordable than the other, that’s worth considering.

ACT vs SAT cost 

In 2024, the SAT costs $68 to take and the basic ACT (without the essay section) also costs $68. If you decide to tack on the ACT’s optional essay, you’ll be looking at $25 extra, or a $93 fee. These fees may be higher if you sign up via late registration. Fortunately, both testing organizations offer fee waivers for students in need. And both offer free score reports. 

ACT vs SAT deadlines 

The 2024 ACT is offered later in the year, with testing dates extending through June and July. The 2024 SAT, however, is only offered until June 1. 

The first registration deadline for the first 2025 SAT is on Aug 9 for an Aug 24 test date, and tests are available every 1-2 months until June 2025. The first 2025 ACT offered also has an Aug 9 registration deadline, with the first test slated for Sept 14. It’s usually advisable to start test-taking as early in your senior year as possible so you have time to study and retake the test as needed. If you’re late to the game, the ACT schedule might be more likely to give you the time you need.

ACT vs SAT availability 

In most states, the SAT and ACT have the same number of 2024 testing dates. The only exception is New York, which offers one less ACT test date than other states. You can look up testing centers online through the College Board and ACT websites to see if there’s one available near you.

Pay less for college with Going Merry

Even with an increasing number of colleges choosing to go test-optional, SAT and ACT scores are still a vital part of college applications for many institutions. The SAT and ACT both evaluate college readiness, but in different ways. Understanding these differences — and choosing the test that plays best to your strengths — is key to success on test day.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.


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