6 Important Differences Between the SAT and the ACT

As college advisors, some of the most frequent questions we get asked include: “Do colleges prefer the SAT or the ACT?” “Which test is easier?” and “Should my child take the SAT or the ACT?”

First off, colleges do NOT prefer one test over the other. All colleges accept both tests. The other questions are not as simple to answer; it’s a matter of personal preference. We’ve had some students score amazing on one exam, and poorly on the other, and vice versa. To decide which test might be a better fit, let’s compare the differences.


  1. Timing

The ACT is much faster paced.  The time-intensive ACT benefits students who move quickly through tests and have great time management.


* Math: 60 questions over 60 minutes (60 seconds per question)

* English: 75 problems over 45 minutes (36 seconds per question)

* Reading: 40 problems over 35 minutes (52.5 seconds per question)

The SAT provides a less intense pacing experience. If a student has difficulty maintaining focus and doesn’t work as well under pressure, the SAT might be a better test.


* Math: 58 problems over 80 minutes (83 seconds per question)

* Writing & Language Arts: 44 questions over 35 minutes (48 seconds per question)

* Reading: 52 problems over 65 minutes (75 seconds per question)

For students with extended time accommodations, timing is negligible


  1. Science

The ACT has a science section.

The SAT has science questions scattered throughout the test.

On both tests, the questions are more skill-based than fact-based, meaning students have to interpret graphs, data sets and charts.  They don’t need any advanced level of scientific knowledge, but the section does take some getting used to.


  1. Math

The ACT covers more topics and greater depth across geometry/algebra/algebra 2.  Most exams also feature a few obscure topics like matrices and vectors.

The SAT has fewer topics and focuses mainly on algebra/algebra 2.


  1. Use of a Calculator

The ACT allows a calculator to be used on all math questions.

The SAT contains 20 math problems that have to be solved without a calculator.

The questions students can’t use a calculator for do not require complicated math, and most students find they don’t need or want a calculator to answer them.


  1. Written Essay Topics

The ACT asks students to choose a side of an argument and support it.

The SAT asks students to evaluate somebody else’s written argument.

Many students find the ACT essay easier. An advantage to the ACT essay is that students choose from one of three stances and then justify it, thus eliminating the challenge of developing a unique thesis statement.  Keep in mind, the essay is optional for both tests and doesn’t affect a student’s overall score.


  1. Practice Materials Available

The SAT recently changed formats.

The ACT has been around a long time in its current form.  This means there are more practice tests and preparation materials available for the ACT.  The SAT does have free comprehensive practice tests and materials through Khan Academy, something that ACT does not have.


So, which is better the SAT or the ACT?

It depends on the student; however, no matter which test a student prefers, once you have chosen, it is important to focus on only one test, working hard to master the content, format and question style.


The college advisors at International College Counselors are available to match students up with SAT and ACT tutors, as well as help students schedule their tests.  Please contact us with any questions you may have.



International College Counselors helps students from all over the world find, apply to, and gain acceptance into the college of their dreams. The expert educational consultants are dedicated to helping students and their families successfully navigate the college admission process. For more information on International College Counselors or to contact an expert college advisor, please visit http://www.internationalcollegecounselors.com.


Additional Resources

From Public School to the Ivy League: How to Get Into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources by Mandee Heller Adler, International College Counselors

NEW! International Admissions: How to get Accepted to U.S. Colleges by Mandee Heller Adler and Aimee Heller, International College Counselors


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