Nov 28, 2017 Lindie Johnson

SAT vs ACT: Which Should I Take?

The SAT and ACT are standardized tests that allow colleges to compare you to other students. In some cases, schools are dropping these tests as a requirement for admissions but most schools still require one or the other. Some schools even use your test scores to evaluate whether or not you are eligible for a merit-based scholarship.

The ACT tends to be more popular with public schools and schools in the Midwest and South. The SAT is the more common requirement at private schools and colleges on the east and west coasts. The most important factor in determining which test you should take is which test the schools you are applying to require. Some students may end up having to take both tests. 


If you find that your schools allow you to submit test scores from either test - as is the case for some - how do you determine which one is right for you? Some students find that one test helps show their strengths or weaknesses more than the other test. 

Here is a side-by-side breakdown to help you compare:


Includes punctuation, grammar & usage, and sentence structure. 75 questions in 45 minutes.

Includes pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and trigonometry. 60 questions in 60 minutes.

Includes readings based on four topics: social studies, natural science, prose fiction and humanities. 40 questions in 35 minutes.

Measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences. 40 questions in 35 minutes.

Optional - 40 minute essay measuring writing skills.


  • With calculator: 55 minutes
  • No calculator: 25 minutes

Delves into algebra, problem solving & data analysis, and advanced math. Max score is 800. 58 questions, 80 minutes.

This section is separated into two tests.

  • Writing & Language - Read passages, find mistakes and weaknesses and answer questions about how to fix them. 44 questions, 35 minutes.
  • Reading - Multiple choice questions based on reading passages. 52 multiple choice questions, 65 minutes.

Optional for some colleges/required by others. Go to for a complete list of schools where the essay is required. 50 minutes to read a passage, build an argument, and support your explanation.

Essay Optional. But required by some schools. Optional. But required by some schools.
Scores Each section score ranges from 1-36. Your ACT score is the average from all sections. Each section is scored on a scale of 200-800. Your total test score can be a max of 1600. 
Penalty for incorrect answers No No
College score sharing If you take the test multiple times, you can choose which scores to send to your colleges.  If you take the test multiple times, you can choose which scores to send to your colleges. 
Question difficulty Question difficulty is random. Questions become more difficult as you progress within each section of the test.
Popularity Tends to be more popular with public schools and schools in the Midwest and South.  Tends to be more popular with private schools and schools on the east and west coasts.
When to take the test Offered 7 times per year: January or February, March or April, June, September, October, November and December.  Offered 7 times per year: January, March, May, June, October, November, December


Remember, whichever test you take, it is important to prepare! Start studying ASAP and set aside a small amount of time each week to prepare, rather than trying to get all your studying done in the few weeks preceding your test date. 

Books, online resources, and classes are all available to help you prepare. Some options are completely free! Check with your high school to see if they offer a class and search online for free SAT and ACT prep classes than can help you improve your score. 

Want more college planning help? Download our College Planning Guide for information on college application requirements, selection considerations, financial aid and more.

Download the  Ultimate College  Planning Guide

Published by Lindie Johnson November 28, 2017
Lindie Johnson