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High school students preparing for college usually have the entrance exams uppermost on their minds with their main concern being SAT vs. ACT. Both are used by colleges to determine a student’s readiness for college. Since its start in 1926, SAT has been the most popular and widely-used college entrance exam. However, around 2010 colleges started seeing more students taking the ACT. Which test is best and how are they different? Get the facts here!

Related resource: 50 Great Value Colleges for Mathematics

Which Should I Take?

Deciding whether to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (American College Testing) can be a big and often difficult choice. They’re both used to determine if a student qualifies to be admitted to a college, and they’re both used to determine scholarships. They also cover basically the same topics with only a few differences here and there, which makes the decision even tougher.

Princeton Review reports that changes made to the SAT in 2016 have made it easier for students to decide which test to take or to take both exams. Practice exams, which are offered online, allow students to practice taking both tests. This gives them an idea of what to expect and to also see how they handle the pressure of taking a timed exam. There is a slight difference in the amount of time each test allows. Some students work well under pressure while others may need more time.

The number or percentage of students taking the SAT or the ACT has flip-flopped in the past couple of decades. In 1986, about 729,066 high school students took the ACT, and 1,000,748 took the SAT. Notice below how the numbers began to change.

• Number of students taking SAT in 2000 – 1,260,278

• Number of students taking ACT in 2000 – 1,065,138

• Number of students taking SAT in 2010 – 1,547,900

• Number of students taking ACT in 2010 – 1,568,835

• Number of students taking SAT in 2017 – 1,715,481

• Number of students taking ACT in 2017 – 2,030,038

A student’s geographic location may also play a role in which test they decide to take. Certain tests seem to be more popular in different areas of the country, although, many areas are switching or using both. The SAT appears to be more popular on both the East and West coasts while students in the Midwest seem to prefer the ACT.

One factor students can take into consideration is not just which test is available in their area but also which one offers more resources in which the student can study or prepare. Students can also take the practice tests for both to see which one they prefer. Deciding which test to take is difficult for many students, which is probably why many choose to take both tests and use their scores competitively.


When first considering which test to take, it may appear that they’re both very similar. They both meet the criteria for being nationally recognized standardized tests and they both meet admission requirements for schools in the U.S. They both measure the student’s proficiency in reading comprehension and problem solving, which are important skill areas necessary for college success. Beyond that, what is the difference? The truth is that despite being very similar in content, there are several differences between the SAT and the ACT.

• Time Allowed – Students who don’t perform under pressure or in a timed environment might want to consider the difference in the time allotted for different areas.

Reading – 53 seconds per question (ACT) – 75 seconds per question (SAT)

ACT English/SAT Writing – 36 sec/question (ACT) – 48 sec/question (SAT)

Math – 60 sec/question (ACT) – 75 sec/question for no calculator & 87 sec/question calculator (SAT)

Science – 53 sec/questions (ACT) – N/A (SAT)

• Science – ACT has a section for science. SAT does not include science in the test but has an Analysis is Science cross-test score.

• Math calculator – ACT allows the use of a calculator for all math questions, but SAT has a no-calculator section.

• Types of Math – Both have algebra, but ACT also focuses more on geometry.

• Math Reference Guide – While SAT provides students with a chart of math formulas, ACT does not.

• Importance of Math in Scoring – Math accounts for 25% of the final score on the ACT but accounts for 50% of the final score on SAT.

• The number of Answer Choices – While both offer multiple-choice math questions, ACT gives five possible choices, and SAT gives four choices.

• Grid-in Math – Both offer multiple-choice math questions, SAT also has grid-in questions, which means students must fill in their own answers.

• Evidence-Support Questions – Both have reading questions, but the SAT includes evidence-support questions. The ACT does not include these.

• Chronological Reading Questions – SAT has all their reading questions in chronological order while ACT has them posted randomly.

• Essay Question – The good news is that the essay portion is optional for both tests. What is required for students who choose to do the essay is different with each test. Both give the student a passage to read. With the SAT, the student reads it, analyzes it and has to define it using reasoning and evidence. With the ACT, the student must define it using their own opinion.

The overall time required to complete the tests in their entirety are different. The SAT must be completed in three hours without the essay and three hours and 50 minutes with the essay. The ACT must be completed in two hours and 55 minutes without the essay and three hours and 40 minutes with the essay. The SAT is scored on a 400-1600 scale while the ACT is scored on a 1-36 scale.

Which Test Schools Prefer or Accept

There has always been speculation as to which test is more preferred by colleges. Although it’s often been believed that elite colleges preferred the SAT over the ACT, most colleges that require standardized testing have denied this and claimed they have no preference. College admissions counselors have stated the same. An interesting fact is that more students attending competitive colleges or universities used the SAT.

Many argue that the geographic location has a bigger role in which test the student takes. For instance, a higher percentage of students admitted to Harvard and Stanford submitted SAT scores. But, this can also be related to the fact that these schools are both on the East and West coasts, where SAT appears to be more popular. As far as colleges and universities go, they adamantly state they have no preference over which test is submitted.

Both the SAT and the ACT are successful tests used to determine college admissions and award merit-based scholarships. They also report that since colleges don’t really prefer one over the other, many students take advantage of the opportunity to take both tests. Taking both tests allows the student to choose the best score and get the best college advantage.