SAT or ACT? Where do I begin? Which test is best for me?


The SAT, originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was created in the 1920's.  It evolved from the test that the Army used to assign recruits in WWI.  The test was designed to be a test of a person's innate ability to think and reason critically.   After WWII, because there were so many college applicants,  the test began to be used for college evaluations. The Scholastic Aptitude Test eventually morphed into the SAT Reasoning Test.  The College Board owns, develops and publishes the SAT Reasoning Tests which are designed to assess the test-taker's ability to analyze and solve problems.

In 2005, the SAT underwent some big changes.  The changes included:

  • Scoring:  changed from a possible perfect score of 1600 to a possible perfect score of 2400.

  • Writing:  this section, which includes and essay, was added

  • Math:  Geometry and Algebra II were added

  • Reading:  short reading passages were added, taking the place of the analogies.

Today's SAT  is very different from the original SAT.


The ACT is considered more of an achievement test.  It was introduced in 1959 as an alternative to the SAT.   The ACT was first popular among colleges in the Midwest and the South while the SAT was the popular test along the US coasts.  The intent of the ACT is to measure a student’s ability to handle college level work as well as his/her general educational development.  Colorado and Illinois require all students take the ACT as part of their mandatory testing requirements.

The ACT has also undergone changes since its inception:

  • Addition of the Writing Section:  Originally, the ACT had four sections, English, Math, Reading and Science Reasoning.  In 2005 the optional Writing section was added.

  • A computer based version:  ACT recently announced that beginning in 2015, they will offer a computer based version of the test.

The ACT and the SAT are equally accepted by all colleges in the United States.  Colleges do not state a preference as to which test is taken.  It is student choice.

Comparison Chart of the SAT and the ACT




Official Website

When is the test given?

January, March or April, May, June, October, November, December (7 times a year)

February, April, June, September, October, December (6 times a year)

How many sections are in the test?


3 math, 3 reading, 3 writing, one experimental

5: (including optional writing) -

Engilsh, Math, Reading, Science

How early is the registration deadline?

usually 4 weeks before

usually 5-6 weeks before

When are the scores released?

2 weeks after test online

3 weeks after test by mail

2-8 weeks after test (writing reported 2 weeks after multiple choice scores are reported)

How long is each section and how many questions in each section?

Writing: 3 sections total

25 min essay

25 min

10 min

Reading: 3 sections total

2- 25 min

1-20 min

Math: 3 sections total

2-25 min (one with 10 grid-in questions)

1-20 min

Experimental Section: 1- 25 min section of Reading, Writing or Math

English: 45 min - 75 questions

Math:  60 min - 60 questions

Reading: 35 min - 4 ten question passages

Science: 35 min - 40 questions

Is there a writing section?

yes - always given first

optional - always given last

How many points for a perfect score?

2400 (800 points per section)

36 points (a composite of the 4 required sections)

What topic/ subjects are tested?

Critical Reading







Optional Essy

How long does the test take?

3 hours 45 minutes

3 hours 25 minutes

Is there an experimental section?

yes (25 minutes)


Is there a science section?


Yes - heavy on how well a student can read and interpret graphs -requires general science knowledge  - measures analysis of, evaluation of and problem solving needed in natural science

How high does the math go in terms of courses taken?

Includes geometry and algebra II

Includes geometry, algebra II and trigonometry

Is there a penalty for guessing?

yes  (lose 1/4 point on multiple choice questions that are incorrect - no loss for skipped questions)


Is the focus more on content or critical thinking and problem solving?

critical thinking and problem solving


Are calculators allowed?

yes - with restrictions

yes - with restrictions

So which test is better?  Which one is easier?  Neither.  They are just different.  Some students may do better on one than the other, but very often, the scores fall in the same range.  After giving practice tests and preparing students for both tests, I have found that most students fall in the same range regardless of which test they chose.  The decision of which test to take is just a matter of preference. When time allows, I recommend that my students try out both tests and, based upon their scores and feelings about each test, pick one on which to focus test prep.


SAT ACT Concordence Study: examines the relationship between SAT and ACT scores

Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College by Sally P. Springer, Jon Reider, Marion R. Franck

ACT vs SAT, New York Times, by Michelle Statalla November 4, 2007

Official SAT site:

Official ACT site:

The Real ACT Book by ACT

Official SAT Book by CollegeBoard