ACT vs SAT – What’s the Difference?

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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on March 18, 2024

Many international students wonder, “should I take the SAT or ACT?” At first glance, these standardized tests seem very similar and many colleges accept scores from both. A little research can help you decide.

ACT or SAT? After learning what is the act test and thinking about should i take the act or sat, students sit in rows in a multi-level lecture hall and take their standardized test after deciding whether to take the act vs sat.

When you apply to colleges and universities in the USA, you may be required to take the ACT test or SAT exam. In recent years, many colleges have shifted to being test-optional with regards to standardized admission tests. These exams may only be an optional part of the college application process for international students (as well as for American students), depending on which college you are applying to. Universities that require the ACT or SAT exam scores with your college application use these scores as one way to measure your skills and college readiness. Standardized tests can be helpful when applying to colleges that do not require test scores, and will not negatively impact your application. 

So, if you are asking “Should I take the SAT or ACT?,” read on to learn more — because the better you understand the differences between the ACT and SAT, the easier it will be to choose which test to take, set up your test registration, and start your test prep.

ACT and SAT At a Glance

Test Structure


English, Math, Reading, Science, Optional Essay


Reading and Writing; Math



2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay); 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)


2 hours and 14 minutes

Reading section


3 long passages, 2 short passages: 40 questions, 35 minutes


2 modules: 54 questions, 64 minutes

Writing section


5 passages: 75 questions, 45 minutes


*No dedicated writing section. The writing section is combined with the reading section

Math section


60 questions, 60 minutes: calculator is allowed


2 modules: 44 questions, 70 minutes; calculator is allowed

Essay section


Optional: 1 essay, 40 minutes


Only available in certain states where it’s required as part of SAT School Day administrations - speak with your counselor for specific requirements for your situation

Science section


40 questions, 35 minutes





Scale of 1-36


Scale of 400-1600



Domestic students: $68 (without essay), $93 (with essay) International students: $181.50 (without essay), $206.50 (with essay)


$60 excluding “non-US regional fee” of $43



Paper or digital



*The optional essay section of the SAT has been discontinued, however, it is available for US schools as part of a state’s accountability assessment program.

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March 2024 update

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in several changes to the SAT and ACT test processes. Here is what you need to know!

ACT has reopened their test centers and the College Board has opened registrations to all students for the SAT. As COVID-19 restrictions have eased, test takers are only required to wear a face mask during the exam, if the test center requires it.

As of Spring 2024, the SAT is administered digitally for international and domestic students. You can take your exam through a laptop or tablet, using a custom-built digital exam application that you need to download before the test day.

If you are already registered for the ACT test, ACT will contact you regarding the availability of test centers. If you are unable to take the test or cannot travel to an official testing center, you can choose to reschedule (change fees apply). To find out whether your test center is closed or rescheduled, visit the ACT test website.

To find available test dates and deadlines for the SAT exam, visit the SAT website. Weekend SAT administrations are available seven times through the end of the calendar year. If a test center is closed, updates will be posted on the SAT test website. If you need to reschedule, you will need to cancel and register for a new test, unless you are eligible for a fee waiver. You can cancel your registration before the regular cancellation deadline by paying $25, and $35 will be charged if you cancel after the cancellation deadline.

For more specifics, please visit the ACT test and SAT test websites. If you have any questions or need assistance understanding what is the ACT exam, what is the SAT exam, or understanding the difference between SAT and ACT exams, please reach out to a Shorelight representative.


1. Understanding the Difference Between the ACT and SAT

To begin, the ACT and the SAT can be hard to tell apart. Both cover reading, writing, math, and have an optional essay. However, the optional essay section for the SAT has been discontinued for international students and is only available for domestic students if required for a state’s accountability assessment program. Both standardized tests give you points for correct answers, and neither penalizes you for wrong answers or omitted ones. Both the SAT and ACT take approximately three to four hours, depending on whether you write the essay. While the ACT offers both paper and digital versions of the test, the SAT is only offered digitally.

Which test is better for international students? Let’s review the similarities and differences between the ACT and the SAT, from structure to subject matter. As you read, think about the following questions:

  • Do you prefer more straightforward problems, or fewer harder problems?

  • Can you read long passages in English?

  • Can you remember basic math formulas?

  • Do you have good grades in science?

By the end of the article, you will know which test is better for you. (But if not, Shorelight advisors can provide one-on-one guidance to help international students answer the question: Should I take the SAT or ACT?)

2. What Are the Differences Between the ACT and SAT Reading Sections?

On both the ACT and the SAT, you are tested on your ability to understand written English. In the SAT, the reading and writing sections are combined. Let’s take a look at how the reading sections on the ACT and the SAT are structured, the types of questions you will be asked on both tests, and how hard these sections are.

How Many Questions Are on the Reading Section of the ACT vs. SAT, and How Long Do I Have to Complete Them?

  • The ACT has 40 questions based on four reading sections (three with long reading passages, one with two short passages) to answer in 35 minutes. The average time per section is 8 to 9 minutes. The average time per question is 52.5 seconds.

  • The SAT reading and writing section has 54 questions split into two modules to answer in 64 minutes. You will have 32 minutes to complete each module; the average time per question is 71 seconds.

  • The reading section is the first part of the SAT and the third part of the ACT.

Test prep tips

  • The ACT includes line numbers for the reading passages.

  • The SAT questions have one dedicated question for each short passage, whereas the ACT may ask questions that are out of order when compared to the reading passage.

  • Both tests offer four multiple-choice answer options.

  • The SAT will include informational graphics such as charts and graphs. The ACT answers will be text-based. However, one passage may contain visual and quantitative elements as well.

  • No prior topic knowledge is necessary for either test.

What Types of Questions Are Asked on the Reading Section of the ACT vs. SAT?

The SAT reading and writing section questions have four question categories:

  • Information and Ideas — Tests your ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, and integrate information and ideas from texts and various informational graphics including tables, bar graphs, and line graphs.

  • Craft and Structure — Measures your ability to understand and use complex terms to make connections between texts.

  • Expression of Ideas — Tests your ability to revise and improve the effectiveness of written expression and to meet specific rhetorical goals.

  • Standard English Conventions — Tests your ability to edit texts to conform to standard English structure, usage, and punctuation.

Test prep tips

  • The SAT passages will represent a variety of subject areas including literature, history/social studies, humanities, and science. The ACT can have any mix of passage types.

  • On the ACT, you will have to answer more reading questions in less time, but they are less intensive than the SAT reading and writing questions.

  • The SAT will ask more challenging questions, but you will have more time per question to work on them.

  • On the ACT, you will retrieve information to answer questions; but on the SAT, you may have to pick the best possible answer by analyzing your choices and eliminating options.

How Hard Are the Questions in the Reading Section of the ACT vs. SAT?

  • ACT reading questions are designed for the skill set of a typical first-year university student.

  • The SAT reading and writing questions range in complexity from a ninth-grade reading level to the level of a typical first-year university student.

Which Reading Section Is Better for Me: ACT or SAT?

If you are better at reading passages and quickly finding the right information, then the ACT may be best for you. If you take a little more time to find and understand the main idea when reading, then the SAT may be the wiser choice.

3. What Are the Differences Between the ACT English and SAT Writing Sections? The SAT Has a Combined Reading and Writing Section, the ACT Has a Dedicated English Section.

The ACT English section tests your ability to understand and improve written sentences. The English section has 75 questions to answer in 45 minutes, giving you 36 seconds per question. The questions focus on three question categories in the ACT English section:

  • Production of Writing questions — These account for approximately 29–32% of the ACT English questions and test how you develop passage topics and understand organization, unity, and cohesion.

  • Knowledge of Language questions — These are roughly 15–17% of the ACT English questions and test your ability to maintain style and tone and make effective word choices.

  • Conventions of Standard English questions — These cover about 52–55% of the ACT English questions and test how well you apply the rules of sentence structure, punctuation, and usage.

 Test prep tips

  • There are five passages on the ACT.

  • The ACT English test offers four multiple-choice answer options.

  • The ACT answers will be text-based only.

  • No prior topic knowledge is necessary for the ACT English test.

  • English is the first ACT section.

4. What Are the Differences Between the ACT and SAT Math Sections?

The math sections on both exams test your understanding of formulas, concepts, and computation up to the twelfth-grade level. Here is how the math sections on the ACT and the SAT are structured, the types of questions you will be asked on both tests, and how hard they are.

How Many Questions Are on the Math Section of the ACT vs. SAT Exam, and How Long Do I Have to Complete Them?

  • The ACT has 60 questions to answer in 60 minutes, giving you 60 seconds per question.

  • The SAT has 44 questions to answer in 70 minutes, giving you one minute and 35 seconds per question (95 seconds).

Test prep tips

  • You can use a calculator on all the questions in the math section of the SAT. (Learn more about the SAT calculator policy here.)

  • You can use a calculator on the ACT math section. (Check out the ACT calculator policy here.)

  • All ACT math questions are multiple choice with five possible choices.

  • Most of the SAT math questions are multiple choice with four possible choices.

  • The SAT features 75% multiple-choice questions and 25% student-produced responses (SPR).

  • On the SAT math section, you may have several scenario-based questions.

  • Math is the second section of the ACT and the SAT.

What Types of Questions Are Asked on the Math Section of the ACT vs. SAT?

There are two question categories in the ACT math section:

  • Preparing for Higher Mathematics questions — These questions make up 57–60% of the math section. They test your skills in five subsections: number and quantity (7–10% of the test), algebra (12–15%), functions (12–15%), geometry (12–15%), and statistics and probability (8–12%).

  • Integrating Essential Skills questions — These make up 40–43% of the math section and test your foundational understanding of math.

The SAT math section covers four types of math questions:

  • Algebra questions — These test your ability to analyze, solve, and create linear equations and inequalities, and also solve equations and systems of equations using multiple techniques.

  • Advanced Math questions — These assess your understanding of absolute value, quadratic, exponential, polynomial, rational, radical, and other nonlinear equations.

  • Problem-Solving and Data Analysis questions — These questions test your ability to apply quantitative reasoning about ratios, rates, and proportional relationships; understand and apply unit rate; and analyze and interpret one- and two-variable data.

  • Geometry and Trigonometry questions — These measure your geometric and trigonometric problem-solving skills in area, volume, lines, angles, triangles, right triangles, trigonometry, and circles.

Test prep tips

  • The SAT provides a list of basic formulas for you to use on the test.

  • The ACT does not provide any formulas — you must memorize them all.

How Hard Are the Questions in the Math Section of the ACT vs. SAT?

Both tests touch on trigonometry, but only at basic levels. Every ACT math question is multiple choice, whereas the SAT has multiple-choice questions and student-produced responses (SPR), which require you to solve problems and directly enter your answers in the grids provided on the answer sheet, rather than selecting from multiple-choice options.

It is worth noting that you will have a 5% better chance of guessing the correct answer on the majority of the SAT math questions because they are multiple choice with four options instead of five. However, SPR questions have no choices and are nearly impossible to guess correctly.

Which Math Section Is Better for Me: ACT or SAT?

If you have a strong grasp of higher math formulas and concepts and prefer straightforward questions, then the ACT is better for you. If you have a broader but less deep understanding of math and have a hard time remembering formulas, then consider the SAT.

5. What Are the Differences Between the ACT and SAT Essay Sections?

The essay section of both the ACT and SAT is the written portion of each exam that tests your ability to read, analyze, and create or explain an argument. While the essay is optional for those taking the ACT, the SAT optional essay is only offered as part of a state’s accountability assessment program, and it does not affect the scores you receive in the other test sections. While you do not have to write the essay on either test, many selective schools require it. Speak with a Shorelight advisor if you have any questions regarding essay requirements for admission to your preferred universities.

Here is what the essay sections of the ACT and the SAT are like.

How Is the SAT Essay Different From the ACT Essay?

  • The ACT requires you to write one essay in 40 minutes. You will receive one writing prompt that describes an issue and three individual perspectives. After you read the prompt, you then select and develop one of the provided perspectives or develop your own.

  • The SAT requires you to write one essay in 50 minutes. The SAT uses the same structure on every test, but changes the reading passage. The SAT prompt tends to be much longer and more complex than the ACT prompt.

How Are the ACT and SAT Essays Graded?

Your ACT essay is graded with a single subject matter score on a scale of 2 (lowest score) to 12 (highest score). The score is a rounded average of four separate domain scores, which test your proficiency in:

  • Ideas and Analyses — Here, you will be evaluated on whether you generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives.

  • Development and Support — This grade measures your ability to construct an argument with details and supporting information.

  • Organization — Here, you will have to arrange your ideas with clarity and purpose.

  • Language Use and Conventions — You will be graded on your ability to use grammar, syntax, word choice, mechanics, and the style and tone used to communicate your main ideas clearly.

Two different people grade the SAT essay. Each person will score your essay on a scale of 1 to 4 in three areas or dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. Those scores are added up to produce three final essay scores in the ranges of 2 (lowest score) to 8 (highest score), one in each area. 

Here are the three criteria that determine your essay score:

  • Reading — You will be evaluated on how well you comprehend and correctly interpret the text and make skillful use of textual evidence.

  • Analysis — For this, you will be graded on how well you grasp the text and focus on relevant ideas.

  • Writing — Here, you will have to demonstrate your command of English. Your essay has to have a central claim, introduction, and conclusion and must use a variety of sentence structures.

How Hard Is the Essay Section of the ACT vs. SAT?

The ACT prompts are shorter, you can use personal experience to support your argument, and you have less time to finish the section. The SAT reading passage is from a published piece of nonfiction. You must use the rhetorical, stylistic, and logical reasoning from the passage to support your argument. The SAT also gives you 10 extra minutes to work on it. 

Which Essay Section Is Better for Me: ACT or SAT?

If you are comfortable reading longer passages and using the standard five-paragraph essay format taught in high school, then the SAT essay is right for you. If you are more comfortable using personal examples to support your point of view, and need more time reading and understanding English, the ACT essay is more appropriate. 

6. What Is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT Science Sections? The ACT Has a Science Section, the SAT Does Not.

For many students, this could be the deciding factor when choosing between the ACT and the SAT. The ACT science section “measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences,” according to the test makers. The section also presents several scientific scenarios, each followed by a number of multiple-choice questions in biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences (e.g., geology, astronomy, and meteorology), and physics.

The section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. The questions are in three categories

  • Data Representation — this section tests your skills using graphics and tables to measure your ability to compare, measure, and extract information.

  • Research Summaries — these test your ability to interpret experiments and experimental hypotheses.

  • Conflicting Viewpoints — these test how well you provide two interpretations of the same scientific phenomena and analyze and draw conclusions.

The three categories above are judged on interpretation of data, scientific investigation, and evaluation of models, inferences, and experimental results. There is a lot of reading in the ACT science section, which may surprise some students. You will have seven passages to read and a series of questions for each one. You will have approximately 52.5 seconds per question.

7. How to Convert Your Score Between the SAT and ACT

Once you have decided which exam you want to take, you may wonder how you would have scored if you took the other exam. For example, let’s say you have completed the ACT exam, and want to know how your score would compare to an SAT exam. The Princeton Review’s ACT-SAT conversion table is a useful tool to identify what your approximate score would be.

In 2016, the SAT revised its examination format and scoring range from 2400 to 1600. If you completed your ACT or SAT exam before 2016, you may have to apply the old conversion table. For those who took the ACT or SAT after 2016, the new conversion table will provide your approximate score. Keep in mind that the conversion table offers only estimates and results may not be exact. The conversion tool provides a general comparison of your score and should not be considered an official or exact test score result.

8. What Else Do I Need to Know About the ACT and SAT? 

We have discussed the sections of the SAT and ACT exams and have covered the similarities and differences between them. Now let’s look at the tests in general and the content and structure of the SAT and ACT tests to understand their similarities and differences. 


  • English

  • Mathematics

  • Reading

  • Science

  • Writing (optional)


  • Reading and Writing

  • Mathematics

Next, let’s take a look at the SAT and ACT scoring, scheduling, and costs.

How Are the ACT and the SAT Scored? 

After you take the ACT exam, you will receive a report with your scores on each section, as well as your composite (or total) score. You will also receive an English Language Acquisition (ELA) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) score. Your ELA score represents overall performance on the English, Reading, and — if you wrote it — the optional essay section. Your STEM score represents your overall performance on the science and math sections.  

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest score you can receive. Your composite score is the average of your grades on each mandatory section. Your essay is graded on a scale of 2 to 12. The ACT provides an interactive version of the score report, which you will receive after taking the test. It is worth reviewing and familiarizing yourself with the meaning of each metric before you take the test. 

According to the ACT, the US national average composite score is 19.5 out of 36. You usually get your scores back from the ACT within 10-24 days of your test date. However, scores for the essay portion are released around two weeks after the multiple-choice portion. Colleges usually receive ACT scores two to eight weeks after your test date. 

SAT scores are on a scale of 400 to 1600, with 1600 being the highest score you can receive. Your total score is a sum of your scores on the Reading and Writing section and the Math section, both with a range of 200 to 800 points.

The SAT uses three categories to grade your essay: reading, writing, and analysis, each on a scale of 2 to 8. According to the College Board, which makes the SAT, the average total score in 2023 was 1028. It generally takes 13 days to get your SAT scores back. 

If you are looking for an SAT to ACT conversion chart, here is a concordance table that maps a score from one test to the other.

9. When Can I Take the ACT? When Can I Take the SAT? 

For the 2024 test cycle, domestic and international students can take the SAT exam in March, May, and June. All exams are offered on Saturdays and on Sunday. However, if you wish to take the test on a weekday, the SAT school day can be taken during your school day on a weekday. This is only applicable to US schools.

You can find the SAT international test dates on the SAT website.

The SAT has a registration deadline of about two weeks before the test and a late registration deadline, which is generally one and a half weeks before the test. If you register late, you will have to pay an additional fee. You can review all the SAT registration dates and deadlines on the College Board website

For domestic and international students, ACT test dates for the 2024 test cycle are in February, April, June, and July. The ACT has a registration deadline of about three to four weeks before the test and a late registration deadline about two to three weeks before the test date. For more information about registering internationally, including up-to-date testing dates and fees, visit the ACT Global site. 

10. How Much Does the ACT Cost? How Much Does the SAT Cost?

ACT Costs and Registration

The ACT costs $68 for domestic students, without the optional essay portion, and $93 if you choose to write the optional essay. For international students, the cost is $181.50 without the essay and $206.50 with it. You can add or remove the ACT writing test for $25 through the late deadline in MyACT.

The ACT will send your scores to your current high school, as well as the four colleges or universities you selected upon registering for the test. Additionally, you can send your scores to other institutions, even after your test. Requests to send ACT scores to additional institutions are processed after all scores for the specific test option (ACT or ACT with writing) have been finalized and are ready for reporting.

You can register online for the ACT. If you need to register late, change test dates or locations, or make any other updates to your registration, you will incur a fee. For a full list of fees, check the ACT site, or ACT Global if you are an international student.  

You will need the following when you register for the ACT: 

SAT Costs and Registration

The SAT costs $60. There is a $43 regional fee added to the cost if you are taking the SAT internationally. Check the SAT site for updated international testing fees. 

With the SAT, you get four score reports sent to colleges and universities included in the test price, and you can register online. Check out the table of fees on the SAT site for updated costs for everything from registering late to receiving your scores by phone. Note that not all services are available internationally; be sure to check before you register. 

To register for the SAT, you may need to provide the following information: 

  • Personal information and current grade level

  • Acceptable photo ID

  • High school name

  • Acceptance of Terms and Conditions

  • The type of testing device you will use

  • Credit card or other method of payment

  • College and university codes for the schools to which you are applying

Remember, both tests offer fee waivers for eligible students. To see if you qualify, read the requirements on the SAT and ACT websites.

What Do I Need to Remember to Bring with Me on Test Day?

For the ACT, you will need:

  • A printed copy of your admission ticket after you register your MyACT account

  • Photo ID (Acceptable options are listed on the ACT site)

  • No. 2 pencils

  • An approved calculator

  • Watch

  • Snacks

For the SAT, you will need:

  • A fully charged testing device with the Bluebook™ application installed

  • Face covering (if required at your test center)

  • An up-to-date admission ticket

  • Photo ID (Acceptable options are listed on the SAT site)

  • An acceptable calculator for use on the Math section of the test (there will be an embedded graphing calculator available to use within Bluebook)

  • Watch

  • Snacks

  • Pen or pencils for scratch work

  • A backup testing device

  • Charging cable for your testing device

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So, Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

International students have a few extra considerations when deciding between the SAT and ACT. Specifically:

  1. Make sure the test dates work for you, especially with the SAT (as there are fewer options for students who do not live in the United States).

  2. Consider your comfort level with the English language. If you find it difficult to read long passages in English, then the SAT may be a better option, as the passages in the reading and writing section range from 25 to 150 words.

Other considerations for all SAT or ACT test-takers:

  1. Do you need more time per question? If so, the SAT is your test. The ACT offers less time to complete every section and sometimes has more problems to answer, too.

  2. Is answering fewer questions in more detail better for you? The SAT may be the right choice for you. The ACT has more questions, but you can answer them quicker than similar questions on the SAT.

  3. Are you good at science? Then the ACT is your test — it is the only one with a dedicated science section.

  4. How are you with tricky questions? The SAT has more questions that could cause problems if you are not a close reader. The ACT questions are much more straightforward.

  5. Do you prefer taking tests with pencil and paper? If so, you may be more comfortable with the traditional ACT.

If you are still not sure about which test to take, why not take a few practice tests? There are many ACT test prep sites offering free ACT practice tests. ACT Academy provides a collection of free, personalized learning resources to help you score higher on the exam. You can find more ACT test prep options on the ACT site.

Similarly, there are several SAT test prep sites and free SAT practice tests available. The SAT partners with nonprofit educational organization Khan Academy to offer free practice options online as well. If you are looking for SAT prep materials, an excellent place to start is the practice page on the SAT site. 

Remember to reach out to your Shorelight advisor if you have any questions concerning the SAT or the ACT, from dates to locations to scoring.

Good luck with your university entrance exam, whichever you choose to take!

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