Are You an SAT or ACT Person?

Which test is a better fit for you?


R. Butler

Which test is better for you? Let’s take a deep dive.

Testing dates for the SAT and the ACT are getting closer, but many juniors and seniors are torn on which test is for them. Students can always take both, but many find that choosing one and practicing its format until test day is the easier route. There are some key differences between the tests to take into consideration before choosing which one you think you’ll succeed best on.

Timing and Questions

In terms of test length, the SAT takes a total of three hours. It has a 65-minute reading section, 35-minute writing and language section, and an 80-minute math section with calculator active and inactive sections. The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes with the optional essay extending this to three hours and 35 minutes. It contains a 35-minute reading section, a 45-minute English section, a 60-minute math section (all calculator active), and a 35-minute science section.

Looking at the breakdowns of these two tests, you may already be able to draw conclusions about which one is a better fit for you. If you’re stronger in reading comprehension you may opt for the SAT because of its longer reading section, and if you’re good at interpreting scientific data and graphs you might go with the ACT because of its science section. Even taking into account the sections of the tests alone will help steer you in the right direction.

When it comes to time per question on the tests, the SAT is more generous. The SAT reading section has 52 questions to be completed in 65 minutes, the writing and language has 44 questions to be completed in 35 minutes, and the math has 58 questions to be completed in 80 minutes. The ACT reading section has 40 questions with a 35-minute limit, the writing and language has a whopping 75 questions with a 45-minute limit, the math has 60 questions with a 60-minute limit, and the science section has 40 questions with a 35-minute limit. If you are a person that tends to work slower and likes to take their time checking over work and such, the SAT would be a better option for you. If you are a fast worker, the ACT can give you more opportunities to demonstrate your mastery within relatively the same time constraint.


Another factor to take into account is how the scoring scales for the SAT and ACT differ. The SAT is scored with a range of 400-1600, and the ACT with a range of 1-36. The SAT scores each section on a scale of 200-400, with a total score of anywhere from 400-1600 points, while the ACT scores an average of each section on the 1-36 scale. The SAT, therefore, gives you a better chance of obtaining a good score due to its wider range which allows for more specificity. The ACT has less of a range of possible scores which causes it to be more difficult to get a good one but makes it more impressive if one does so.

Something helpful that many colleges participate in is superscoring. Superscoring is when colleges take your best score from each section from all of the times you took the SAT or ACT and use these to create a new superscore. Say the first time you took the ACT you got a 20 0n the English section and a 32 on the math section. You then retook the test again and scored a 34 on the English section and a 28 on the math section. Superscoring would allow your previous 32 on the math part and your later 34 on the English part to be averaged towards your composite superscore, making your score look better on applications. This same principle applies to the SAT as well. So, if you’re worried about your performance on a certain section being worse the second, third, or whatever time around as you’re trying to improve another section’s score, look into which colleges superscore.

Optional Essay

The ACT offers an optional essay that the SAT does not. If you want to further demonstrate the skills you’ve learned in your English classes throughout high school, you can pay the extra $25 to take the essay portion after the rest of the test. You’re given a total of 40 minutes to complete the essay. First, you’re presented with a prompt that discusses an issue. Then you’re given three different points of view on that issue and are expected to write an essay on which one your opinion aligns with, and why. If you don’t agree with any of the given viewpoints you may come up with a fourth on your own to write about, but many students steer away from this due to unwanted complications. Your ACT writing score is scored on a scale of 2-12 and is not a part of your composite score (the average of all required sections, scored on a scale of 1-36). Although, your essay score is used with your scores on the English and reading sections to give you an ELA (English Language Arts) score.

Since the SAT does not have an option like this, it should be taken into consideration that the ACT may provide you with more opportunities to demonstrate mastery. If you’re a self-proclaimed “English person” or are particularly confident in your writing skills, taking the ACT and its optional essay may be the right choice for you.


Unfortunately, the SAT and ACT are not free to take. They both cost a good amount of money, but there are ways to get these fees waived. The SAT registration fee is $60, and the ACT registration fee is $63, but a total of $88 with the optional essay. If you register after the regular deadline but before the final deadline, there is an additional late fee of $30 for the SAT and $36 for the ACT. Looking at the expenses of the two tests the SAT is the less pricey option, especially taking into account the optional ACT essay. Both tests are still not cheap, and some may want to look into applying for a fee waiver. With a fee waiver, you would have access to free registration and score reports for both tests. If you want to see if you qualify for a waiver, there is a list of criteria here. Contact your counselor for help with applying, as you cannot apply directly through the College Board.

If you’re looking for the more affordable option between the SAT and ACT, the SAT would be for you. Although, if you can afford the ACT or qualify for a waiver, it would be a good option to take it with the optional essay if you feel confident in writing, as it can further demonstrate your college readiness.

Similarities and Differences

If you’re simply torn between the two tests, there’s nothing wrong with taking both. After all, they are similar in many aspects. For one, both tests have no penalty for wrong answers. If you’re not sure of a question or are running out of time on a section, you will not be penalized for guessing answers and getting them incorrect. This allows students to get as many points as possible on the SAT and the ACT without wrong answers negatively impacting their scores. On another point, neither test is easier than the other. “These are high-stakes tests; neither of them is going to be easy,” says Mai Jumamil, former director of college prep programs at Kaplan, a New York-based education company.

Taking these things into account, the best option would be to start by taking the practice tests provided by the creators of both the SAT and ACT. You can also sign up to take the Pre-SAT and Pre-ACT during your sophomore and junior years of high school to simulate the settings of the real tests. If you find yourself leaning towards one more than the other, or scoring better on one test, it’s wise to focus your time and resources on that particular one.

All of this said, these tests are not so vastly different that you could get a perfect score on one while failing the other, but the choice you’re given between the two helps you to play to your strengths. The only key dissimilarities that come into play are the slight differences in structure, timing, scoring scale, and some of the content matter. Even so, there are sections of both tests that require skill and knowledge in all areas of what you have learned throughout high school. For example, even though the SAT has no designated science section, there are science-based questions scattered throughout different parts of the test. Whatever one of the tests seems to lack, it has in some form or other, so don’t get too hung up on choosing the “right one” like your academic career depends on it.