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SAT vs ACT: Which is better?

SAT or ACT – Which is better?

SAT vs ACT: Differences and difficulty

The American education system employs certain standardized tests to get into undergraduate school. Most, not all, generally require either one of SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) or the ACT (American College Testing) to evaluate incoming student applications on a uniform scale.

While high-school GPA, extracurricular activities, and class rank, are also major determining factors in college admissions, the general consensus is that the combination of the standardized tests and the high-school parameters together form a better judge of student merit. We must add that a few studies have also shown a higher correlation of high-school GPA to first semester college GPA, among incoming students, but we will leave that discussion for later.

SAT was established more than 30 years before ACT, in 1926, however recently ACT has surpassed SAT in the number of test takers. ACT reported over 2 million high school test takers in 2017, with SAT at 1.7 million. With the two popular choices, and with both being accepted by college admissions, it is natural to wonder – Which test should I take? The question is better tackled by taking a comparative look at the two. In this article, we thus try to lay out the differences, their preferences, difficulty level, and so on.
Also read,
How to get into the top universities for your undergraduate degree?
Top universities in the world for undergraduate studies
Common Application, for Undergraduate Admissions in USA – Process, Guidelines, Fees, etc

SAT vs ACT – What are the differences?

In 2016, a major change, introduced in the SAT format, led to a whole new design of the test pattern that ultimately made it akin to the ACT pattern. For comparison, let us look at a quick visual chart.


Total Score Scoring scale ranges from 400 to 1600. 200 to 800 for Evidence Based Reading and Writing (EBRW)& 200 to 800 for Math. 2 to 8 on each of the three dimensions of Essay – Reading, Analysis and Writing. Essay not part of final score. Four Sections with scores on a scale 1-36. Total Score is the average. Essay writing is optional and scored from 2-12. This is not part of the final score
Sections (Time per Section and number of questions) Reading (65 mins for 62 quest.)

Writing and Language (35 mins for 44 quest.)

Math with no Calculator (25 mins for 20 quest.)

Math with Calculator (55 mins for 38 quest.)

Essay (Optional) (50 mins for 1 Essay)

English (45mins for 75 quest.)

Math (60 mins for 60 quest.)

Reading (35 mins for 40 quest.)

Science (35 mins for 40 quest.)

Writing Essay (Optional) (40 mins for 1 Essay)

Total Duration 3 hours 50 mins with Essay

3 hours without

3 hours 35 mins with Writing Essay

2 hours 55 mins without

Cost $60 with Essay

$46 without Essay

$58.50 with Writing Essay

$42.50 without Writing


SAT vs ACT – Which one is more difficult?

This is harder to respond to without the knowledge of the test-taker’s preferences. The gist of it is, though, with the changes introduced in 2016, SAT’s level of examination is very much similar to ACT, with a few subtle differences. These differences are minor and for someone who is preparing for one, it will not be very difficult to appear for the other. Here is a list of what you may call differences that can lead to subjective variations in the level of exam difficulty.

  • Math

    While both ACT and SAT maintain their mathematic complexity limited to high-school, there are certain content differences that may spell trouble for students who are not comfortable with quantitative skills. Here are some key differences.

    • SAT has a section for Math without calculators, with 20 questions. Though their contention is that none of the questions really require students the assist of the gadget, anyway. ACT allows calculators all the way.
    • ACT has a considerable focus on topics that are not primary in SAT. Matrices, trigonometry, logarithms, and geometry (planar and coordinate) feature on ACT exams. Though most questions are dedicated to various levels of algebra.
      SAT, on the other hand, puts a lot of emphasis on algebra, problem solving and data analysis, and the ability to understand and analyse expressions. A majority of problems are in those three categories with fewer problems on geometry, complex numbers, and trigonometry. Both SAT and ACT have significant data interpretation questions.
    • SAT provides a formula cheat sheet which is absent in ACT.
    • ACT is all multiple-choice while SAT has 5 student delivered responses in the “no calculator” Math section and 8 in the “with calculator” Math section. Most of these student response questions are part of a connected chain of questions.
    • SAT lays a lot of emphasis on the contribution of the Math score towards the final test score. It is 50% of the score as compared to ACT in which Math accounts for 25% among the four sections.
  • Science

    Though the new format of SAT includes a set number of passages in the Reading section, with Science, Social Studies and a passage in literature, the content of the Science section is mostly about data and graph interpretations. You are not required to know any specific formula or facts.

    In ACT, however, there is a separate Science section. Though it mostly tests skills rather than facts and formula, you need to have some prior analysis and reasoning experience in the scientific method. Also ACT generates a separate Science section score that SAT doesn’t. SAT does provide cross-test scores on Analysis in Science and History/Social Studies, however.

  • Evidentiary based Reading and Writing in SAT

    In SAT, the Reading section tests the student’s assessment, logical, and comprehensive skills in the context of the passages. As mentioned before, the passage content follows specified topics like the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, or a conversation text from Lincoln, or an author outside USA.

    Students will be asked to infer the content based on specific questions and then support the inference with data and other evidence from the content. Such questions require comprehensive skills that go beyond simple reading abilities and venture into reasoning.

    They will also be expected to understand contextual meaning of words and phrases. Paired passages are also part of the new SAT. The Writing and Language Test evaluates students’ revising and editing skills.

  • ACT too tests comprehension and reasoning skills, but there is no call to present evidence for your argument. The English section tests punctuation, and other grammatical constructions. While the Reading section tests analytical and comprehensive skills through data interpretation and argument.So, in a way SAT EBRW section is trickier.

  • Essay

    In SAT, students are provided a passage and asked to elaborate on how the author builds an argument, based on the information already provided by the author – evidence, reasoning, etc. The student is not expected to provide their own subjective opinion, but rather express their comprehension of the complex text.

  • In ACT, students are provided with a short passage and different viewpoints. They are expected to analyse the viewpoints and contrast one viewpoint against the others.

  • Time to finish the test

    The overall duration, of the tests, is quite similar, however given the number of questions assigned to each section, it does seem like SAT affords a bit more time to ponder each question. Anyone with test anxiety issues may face a somewhat bigger time crunch on ACT. However, unlike SAT, ACT only has multiple-choice questions. SAT, on the other hand, does often require student responses not provided as an answer choice.


Is the new SAT easier than the ACT?

As far as the overall difficulty or ease of one test over the other, we have compiled a SAT vs ACT percentile distribution from test results in 2017 (after the new SAT format). Based on the graphs below, the 99th percentile occurs over 1480, for SAT, and over 34, for ACT. While the 75th percentile occurs over 1190, for SAT, and 24, for ACT.

SAT vs ACT Percentile

When we compare those scores with the concordance table provided by College Board, we get a similar distribution of scores for the two chalks of percentiles. What does this imply?

This table, and the above percentiles, indicate that roughly the same percentage of students do better than 99%, and 75%, of the total test takers, for both ACT and SAT. The difference in the actual numbers is due to the difference in the total number of test takers for each – over 1.72 million for SAT and over 2.03 million for ACT.
SAT Total to ACT Composite – 2018 Concordance Table

SAT Score ACT Score
1160-1190 24
1490-1520 34

Possible conclusion? Both SAT and ACT share an overall similar difficulty level as far as the two tests are concerned. It is, however, true that a lot of students claim that the new SAT format seems easier than the older format.

Do most colleges prefer the SAT or ACT?

No. All colleges claim that they accept both tests and there is no clear evidence to say that there is preference of one over the other. Although, a recent article based on Georgetown University’s SAT vs ACT intake profile seems to indicate that admissions were offered to students in the 89th percentile SAT Math (at 680) compared to the 99th percentile for ACT (at 34). This could be a lingering forgiving attitude, for SAT, based on the limited scoring capability from the previous SAT pattern.

However, without this one fleeting speculation, there is no reason or evidence to think SAT is the preferred test, by college admissions. It is true, though, that there is a geographical preference, in the US, between the two. Most regions in the Mid-West America prefer ACT, while most of coastal America prefer SAT. It is possible that such a distribution causes Midwest Colleges to get more applicants with ACT scores and vice versa.

Which one should I take?

Given all the non-biased arguments, thus far, it is really up to the test taker to decide which style suits him/her the most. Practice both, to begin with, and evaluate your ease with the patterns. Ultimately, it should be a decision based on your comfort.

Good Luck!

Some relevant reading.