The ACT and SAT Compared

ACT and SAT Structure and Timing

Although there are some similarities in the ways the tests are organized, the ACT and the SAT each has its own unique structure. The ACT has required multiple choice sections on English, Reading, Math, and Science, plus an optional Writing section. The SAT has three sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW), Math, and Essay, the last of which is optional. The EBRW section includes a Reading Test and a Writing and Language Test. The most obvious difference is the SAT's lack of a science section, but there is scientific content within the test's EBRW section. The ACT takes 215 minutes with the Writing section (3 hours and 35 minutes), while the SAT is timed at a total of 230 minutes with the Essay (3 hours and 50 minutes).

ACT and SAT Question Types

Aside from the Writing section, all ACT questions are multiple choice. The majority of questions on the SAT's two required sections are also multiple choice, but the Math section has 13 exercises that require test-takers to write in a numerical response and fill in the appropriate circles. The ACT has a total of 215 questions, while the SAT has 154. This allows test-takers an average of about 49 seconds per question on the ACT and 70 seconds per question on the SAT. The ACT's Writing section and the SAT's Essay section both feature a single essay task.

ACT and SAT Scoring Systems

The ACT and the SAT both have complex scoring systems that evaluate students in several ways. At the sectional and composite levels, the ACT score range is 1 to 36 per multiple-choice section and a composite score that is the mean of these four sections (also 1 to 36). SAT sectional scores are reported between 200 and 800, and the composite score is the sum of the two (400-1600). Both exams score essays separately, from 2-12 on the ACT and 2-8 on the SAT. The ACT scoring system includes reporting category scores within each multiple-choice section, which are given as percentages of correct answers. ACT students receive percentile rankings at the national and state levels and College Readiness Benchmark indicators. The SAT scoring system features subscores within the individual tests; these are similar to the ACT's reporting category scores. The SAT's cross-test scores, however, have no parallel in the ACT scoring system. Cross-test scores are drawn from questions on multiple SAT tests. SAT subscores and cross-test scores are reported on respective scales of 1-15 and 10-40. Additionally, SAT score reports include test scores (10-40) for the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math tests within the sections.

ACT and SAT Acceptance at Universities

Most American universities require scores for either the ACT or the SAT, and with very few exceptions, even institutions that are officially "test optional" will consider these examinations as part of the admissions process. Student preferences for one test or the other generally varies by institution. At Harvard University, for example, 67% of the most recent entering class chose the SAT, versus 53% for the ACT (obviously, many students took both tests). The latest class at Northwestern University, on the other hand, showed a clear preference for the ACT (77% compared to 35% who took the SAT). Students who are conflicted about their testing options should make choices based on their academic strengths rather than the statistics associated with an individual institution. There is little evidence that either test confers any sort of inherent advantage for undergraduate admission.

ACT and SAT Score Concordances

The College Board, the administrator of the SAT, publishes yearly concordance tables that attempt to equate ACT and SAT scores. According to the most recent document, the overall average ACT composite score of 21 is equal to an SAT total score range of 1060-1090, with 1080 as the preferred single point of reference. The 90th percentile of the ACT score range is 28, which matches an SAT score range of 1300-1320. ACT scores of 30 and above and SAT scores of 1360 and up represent the top 5% of all test-takers. SAT concordances with ACT scores of 34, 35, and 36 are 1490-1520, 1530-1560, and 1570-1600 respectively.

ACT and SAT Fees

The basic ACT and SAT fees are similar. The ACT costs $50.50 without the Writing section or $67.00 with the Writing section, while the SAT is $47.50 or $64.50 if the Essay is included. Both organizations charge test-takers additional fees for various services or less typical types of registration (such as extra score reports or late registration).