SAT vs. ACT: What’s the difference?

It’s a fair question, especially as more schools say they’ll take scores from either test and the new SAT is on the horizon. Which test is better? Which one should you take?

Historically (that is, back when we were kids in the ’80s and ’90s), the SAT was the test we took to apply to nationally-recognized private schools; the ACT was the test we took to apply to state schools. Generally speaking, a college would decide on one or the other, and if you wanted to apply there, you had to take the right test.

All that has changed. Now, thanks to a very aggressive marketing campaign on the part of ACT, Inc., most schools will accept scores from either test. So what’s the difference?


The SAT consists of 5 sections:

  1. Reading (65 minutes)
  2. Writing and Language (35 minutes)
  3. Math–No Calculator (25 minutes)
  4. Math–Calculator (55 minutes)
  5. Essay–optional (50 minutes

Cost: $43 ($54.50 with optional essay)


The ACT also consists of 5 sections:

  1. English (45 minutes)
  2. Mathematics–calculator allowed (60 minutes)
  3. Reading (35 minutes)
  4. Science Reasoning (35 minutes)
  5. Writing–optional (40 minutes)

Cost: $38 ($54.50 with optional writing test)

Um…is there a difference?

One of the reasons the SAT is changing in 2016 is to make it look more similar to the ACT. And on paper (especially the kind of paper found in your parents’ checkbook), it does. On the back end, though, there are some important differences.

First, there’s science. The biggest difference between the tests is that science section. If you haven’t taken some good science classes, or if you just don’t get science, you should take the SAT. Sure, there are some questions in the SAT’s math sections about data analysis, and there are questions that look science-y, but you’ll be able to answer them using regular old math.

Second, the ACT depends more on what you’ve already learned in school.  If you understand what you’re learning in school and you can recall things under pressure, the ACT is for you. Though the SAT isn’t actually called the Scholastic Aptitude Test anymore, and the redesigned SAT looks more like the classes you’ve taken in school than ever before, it’s still a more general test than the ACT is. That means there are fewer questions that depend on you recalling specifics from a class you took two years ago.

The SAT is easier to game. This is our favorite point, and it’s one of the chief reasons we focus on SAT prep. The test-taking strategies and shortcuts we teach work with any test, even the biology quiz you have next week, but they work better on the SAT than they do on the ACT. If your initial test score is low, investing in SAT prep will usually give you a greater change in your score than investing in ACT prep.

Which test should you take?

That, of course, depends on your personal strengths and weaknesses. We aren’t convinced that either test is better than the other–in fact, research shows that your high school grades are a better predictor of your success in college than any standardized test. We recommend taking a practice test for each one (available here for the SAT and here for the ACT) and seeing how you do before you decide on a test. Once you decide, commit to it! Make sure the kind of test prep you’re doing is specific to the test you’re going to take, and do a good job of studying for the test before you take it. Either way you go, being prepared will help you get a better score.

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