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What is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

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.

A multi-level lecture hall filled with students taking a test.

ACT vs. SAT? When you apply to colleges and universities in the USA, you will often be required to take the ACT test or SAT exam. These exams are just one part of the college application process for international students (as well as for American students). When you submit your ACT or SAT exam scores with your college application, college admissions teams then use those scores as one way to measure your skills and college readiness. 

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.

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. Both standardized tests give you points for correct answers, and neither penalizes you for wrong answers or omitted ones. Both take approximately three to four hours, depending on whether you write the essay.

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 need to use a calculator for every math question?

  • 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 SAT, the reading sections test your ability to understand written English. 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 4 reading sections (3 with long reading passages, 1 with 2 short passages) to answer in 35 minutes. The average time per section is 10 minutes. The average time per question is 52.5 seconds.

  • The SAT has 52 questions based on 5 reading sections to answer in 65 minutes. The average time per passage is 9 minutes and 37 seconds; the average time per question is 69 seconds.

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

Test prep tips 

  • The ACT does not include line numbers for the reading passages, but the SAT does.

  • The SAT questions will flow in order, whereas the ACT may ask questions that are out of order when compared to the reading passage.

  • Both tests offer 4 multiple-choice answer options.

  • The SAT will include informational graphics such as charts and graphs. The ACT answers will be text-based only.

  • No prior topic knowledge is necessary for either test.

What types of questions are asked on the reading section of the ACT vs. SAT?

There are three question categories in the ACT reading section:

  • Key Ideas and Details questions—these account for approximately 50% of the ACT reading questions. They test your ability to determine themes and draw conclusions.

  • Craft and Structure questions—these are approximately 25–30% of ACT reading questions. They test your reading comprehension skills.

  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas questions—these take up approximately 20% of ACT reading questions and test your skills in differentiating between fact and opinion, analyzing arguments, and making connections between texts through evidence.

There are also three question categories in the SAT reading section:

  • Command of Evidence questions—these test your ability to use evidence from either the passage(s) or an informational graphic.

  • Words in Context questions—these test if you are able to understand unfamiliar terms in context and the author’s intentions.

  • Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science questions—these determine how you examine ideas, interpret data, and consider implications based on the reading passages.

Test prep tips 

  • The SAT will have 1 literature-based passage, 1 history-based passage, 1 social science-based passage (think psychology, sociology, or economics), and 2 science-based passages. 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 questions.

  • The SAT will ask more challenging questions, but there are fewer to answer and you will have more time 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.

  • SAT reading 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 and Language sections?

The ACT English and SAT writing sections both test your ability to understand and improve written sentences. To determine which test may be a better fit for you, here is a comparison of the English section of the ACT and the Writing and Language section of the SAT.

How many questions are on the English section of the ACT vs. the Writing and Language section of the SAT exam, and how long do I have to complete them?

  • The ACT has 75 questions to answer in 45 minutes, giving you 36 seconds per question.

  • The SAT has 44 questions to answer in 35 minutes, giving you 48 seconds per question.

 Test prep tips

  • There are 5 passages on the ACT and 4 passages on the SAT.

  • Both tests offer 4 multiple-choice answer options.

  • The SAT will include informational graphics such as charts and graphs, and the ACT answers will be text-based only.

  • No prior topic knowledge is necessary for either test.

  • English is the first ACT section, and Writing and Language is the second SAT section.

What types of questions are asked on the writing section of the ACT vs. SAT?

There are three question categories in the ACT English section:

  • Production of Writing questions—these account for approximately 30% 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 20% 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 50% of the ACT English questions and test how well you apply the rules of sentence structure, punctuation, and usage.

 There are five question categories in the SAT Writing and Language section:

  • Command of Evidence—these questions test how well you understand the author's use of supporting information to build an argument.

  • Words in Context—these show whether you can choose the best word based on the surrounding text.

  • Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science—these questions evaluate how well you read passages about topics in history, social studies, and science, and then make decisions that improve them.

  • Expression of Ideas—these test your ability to organize ideas and make structural changes.

  • Standard English Conventions—here, you are tested on how you make changes to word usage, sentence structure, and punctuation to improve a passage.

How hard are the questions in the writing section of the ACT vs. SAT?

The difficulty of each writing section is more a question of your aptitude. Are you stronger at grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure? Go with the ACT. Would you prefer to be tested on your vocabulary and comprehension? Then the SAT may be the better choice.

The ACT has more questions, with less time per question. The SAT questions are fewer in number but are more challenging and require more time to answer.

Which section is better for me: ACT English or SAT Writing and Language?

Take the ACT if you prefer to answer more questions that require less thought. Take the SAT if you are better at answering fewer questions that take longer.

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 58 questions to answer in 80 minutes, giving you 83 seconds per question.

Test prep tips

  • There are two parts to the SAT math section—one that allows you to use a calculator and one that does not. (You can read the full 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 5 possible choices.

  • Most of the SAT math questions are multiple choice with 4 possible choices. There are also 13 grid-in answers with no multiple-choice options.

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

  • Math is the second section of the ACT. No-calculator math is the third section of the SAT, followed by calculator math as the fourth.

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 approximately 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 (7–10%), and statistics and probability (8–12%).

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

There are three question categories that comprise 90% of the SAT math section:

The final 10% covers additional mathematical topics, including trigonometry.

Test prep tips

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

  • The ACT doesn’t provide any formulas—you must memorize them all.

How hard are the questions in the math section of the ACT vs. SAT?

On the SAT, you can only use a calculator for a portion of the problems; but on the ACT, you can use one on every math problem. Both tests touch on trigonometry, but only at basic levels. Every ACT math question is multiple choice, whereas the SAT has questions where you have to write an answer without any 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, 13 grid-in 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, prefer straightforward questions, and like to use a calculator, 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. The essay is optional, 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. 

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 writing prompt 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 support your argument with clarity and purpose.

  • Language Use and Conventions—you will be graded on your ability to use grammar, syntax, word choice, and mechanics 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 to support an argument.

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

  • 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 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 7 passages to read and a series of questions for each one. You will have approximately 53 seconds per question.

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 it is time to look at the tests in general. Both the SAT and ACT start with an introduction and end with optional essays, but the section progressions in their middles are different. 

The SAT sections will always appear in the following order: 

  1. Reading

  2. Writing and Language

  3. No-calculator math

  4. Calculator math

  5. Optional essay

The ACT sections will always appear in the following order:

  1. English

  2. Math

  3. Reading

  4. Science

  5. Optional essay

 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 20.8 out of 36. You usually get your scores back from the ACT within two weeks of 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 composite of your scores on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section, both with a range of 200 to 800 points. Your report is then broken down into subtest scores and cross-test scores, which provide similar information as the additional reports on the ACT. 

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 2019 was 1068. It generally takes two to three weeks to get your SAT scores back. 

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

7. When can I take the ACT? When can I take the SAT? 

The SAT test dates 2020 are on Saturdays in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December for students in the United States. SAT international test dates are in March, May, October, and December. 

The SAT has a registration deadline of about a month before the test and a late registration deadline, which is generally a week before the test. If you register late, you will have to pay an additional fee. Note that there is no late registration for international students. You can review all the SAT registration dates and deadlines on the College Board website

The ACT test dates 2020 are similar for both domestic and international students—there are seven options. You can take the ACT in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December in the US. The ACT international test dates are in February, April, June, July, August, September, and December. The ACT has a registration deadline of about a month before the test and a late registration deadline about two weeks before the test date. For more information about registering internationally, including up-to-date testing dates and fees, visit the ACT Global site. 

8. How much does the ACT cost? How much does the SAT cost?

ACT costs and registration

The ACT costs $52 (USD) for domestic students, without the optional essay portion, and $68 if you choose to write the optional essay. For international students, the cost is $150 without the essay and $166.50 with it. The ACT will send your scores to your current high school, as well as four colleges or universities. 

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 documents and information when you register for the ACT: 

SAT costs and registration

The SAT costs $49.50 without the optional essay, and $64.50 with the essay. There is a “non-US regional fee” added to the cost if you are taking the SAT internationally. This fee is currently between $43 and $53. 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 will need the following: 

  • Credit card

  • Headshot photo

  • 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:

For the SAT, you will need:

  • A printed copy of your admission ticket

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

  • No. 2 pencils

  • An approved calculator

  • Watch

  • Snacks

 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 reading long passages in English gives you anxiety, then you are better off taking the ACT.

Other considerations for all SAT or ACT test-takers:

  1. Do you need a calculator at all times on the math tests? If so, the ACT is for you. (The SAT has a no-calculator math section.)

  2. 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.

  3. Is answering fewer questions in more detail better for you? Again, opt for the SAT. The ACT has more questions, but you can answer them quicker than similar questions on the SAT.

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

  5. 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.

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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