SAT and ACT differences

The SAT and ACT equally assess university readiness and are widely accepted by US colleges, improving admission chances.

  • The SAT scores range from 400 to 1600, while the ACT composite score ranges from 1 to 36.
  • Both tests cover reading, writing, language, and math, but the ACT also includes science and an optional essay. Both tests now allow calculators for all sections of math.
  • The SAT has non-multiple choice math questions that require an exact answer.
  • The SAT sections last 134 minutes, while the ACT lasts 175 minutes. The average time to answer an ACT question ranges from 36 to 60 seconds, and for the SAT, it's between 71 and 95 seconds.
  • The ACT is a faster-paced test and requires different strategies and tactics compared to the SAT.

Do universities prefer the SAT or ACT?

The SAT and ACT are similar exams, with overlap in content, knowledge, and test-taking strategy. American universities have no preference for one over the other. It's feasible to prepare for one test and then change your mind, as they are sufficiently similar. Some people even take both exams.

Full-length diagnostic tests

To decide between the two exams, consider format, preference, and timelines. However, taking full-length diagnostic exams in each test is the best indication. While scores may not differ much, some students prefer the format and style of one test. We offer invigilated practice tests online or in-person at our central London offices on most weekends. Contact us to book a practice test.

When are the SAT and ACT available?

Consider your school schedule when choosing SAT and ACT test dates to balance commitments efficiently. SAT is on Saturday morning, while ACT offers morning and afternoon slots on both Friday and Saturday.

View all SAT and ACT test dates and registration deadlines here.

What is the format of the SAT and ACT?

Both the SAT and ACT are now taken online. For the ACT, a computer is provided by the testing center. However, for the SAT, you can bring your own device. Make sure to download the Bluebook app from the College Board and have the latest version before your test date.

SAT and ACT sections and timing

The SAT allows for slightly more time per question than the ACT, but has a more complex questioning style. Difficult phrasing may need to be deciphered. Both tests offer extra time accommodation for eligible students.


SAT ACT Table 2


Test Sections

What do the SAT and ACT examine? 


Both the English section of the ACT and the Writing questions of the SAT test similar knowledge of English grammar and rhetorical skills. It is worth noting that the ACT English section has 75 questions where the SAT has 24 for the equivalent section. The formatting will also be slightly different: ACT English is structured around longer passages with incorporated questions that will not be ordered in any particular way, but the SAT Writing questions are based on 2-3 sentence passages and have a more regular pattern, starting with grammar questions before moving on to rhetorical skills. 


In terms of content, both tests cover the same ground in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. From there, the SAT places a greater emphasis on algebra and statistics while the ACT includes more topics in geometry and trigonometry. The ACT also has a few more advanced topics, like vectors and matrix multiplication.  Also be aware that some SAT questions do not have multiple choice responses – instead, students need to type in their final answers. 


Both SAT and ACT Reading questions focus on reading comprehension. You’ll be required to read and understand text, make basic inferences, and understand the main idea and purpose of a passage. As with English, ACT Reading is based on longer passages, whereas each SAT Reading question refers to its own mini passage that may be anywhere from 2-6 sentences long.  
In addition to the structural difference, the ACT also allows much less time per question: you do get more time per question on the SAT than on the ACT, but to compensate the ACT’s questions tend to be more straightforward. You’ll also encounter poetry and data interpretation in SAT Reading questions, which tends to make the SAT just as time-pressured despite having more time per question. 


The last section of the ACT is the Science section.  Despite its name, this section doesn’t require much scientific knowledge, though it does help to be comfortable with scientific terminology. The fundamental skills tested on this section are graph interpretation and experiment analysis.  If you have an extreme aversion to science, you may be better suited to the SAT, but bear in mind that even the SAT has data interpretation questions.  


The SAT has no essay component whilst the ACT has an optional argumentative essay, where a prompt with an open-ended question and three perspectives is presented. The task is to write a persuasive argument, using reasons and concrete examples to support a clear thesis.

How is the SAT score calculated?

The SAT has two sections which are each awarded their own score. These section scores are determined by on the number of questions you answered correctly in that part of the test, which is known as your raw score. This raw score is then converted to a scaled score ranging from 200 to 800. This process takes into account the slight variations in difficulty across different versions of the SAT. It ensures that your score accurately reflects your performance regardless of the specific test that you took.

For example, on one SAT you might be able to miss a mark on 1 Math question and still achieve a perfect scaled score of 800, whilst on other occasions you would need to answer all of the questions perfectly. This scaling process – which is referred to as ‘equating’ – ensures fairness in the scoring process and allows universities to reliably compare results from different tests. 

How is the ACT score calculated?

In the ACT, for every question you answer correctly, you earn a point without any deductions for wrong answers. The sum of your correct answers on the four sections of the test: English, Math, Reading, and Science, gives you your raw score. Next, your raw score for each test is converted into a scale score ranging from 1 to 36. 
What is an ACT composite score? 

Your composite score represents your overall ACT score, which is calculated by taking the average of your scores on each individual test. Simply add up your scores for English, Math, Reading, and Science, and then divide the total by 4 (remember to round to the nearest whole number). Just as with the equating process applied to SAT scores, this there is a process for converting the raw score to make sure that overall ACT are comparable test by test. Typically students can drop a mark in one or two sections, whilst the other sections will demand a perfect score in order to achieve a 36. This can vary test to test.