SAT vs ACT – what is the best choice for you? Get expert insights to determine the ideal test to showcase your abilities and get into your dream college. Making an informed choice is essential. Should you take the SAT? Or should you take the ACT? Or both? This article provides an in-depth comparison of the SAT and ACT, discussing their structures, the skills they assess, and reveals which one is preferred by universities. Read on to learn more!

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SAT vs ACT: Structure What Skills Are Tested More on SAT vs ACT? What Universities Accept Both SAT and ACT? SAT vs ACT: Which Universities Only Take One of Them? SAT vs ACT: Which One Should You Take? FAQs

SAT vs ACT: Structure

SAT and ACT are claimed to be designed to measure a high school student's readiness for college. Though there are many of us who are skeptical of this college admissions tool, the reality is that most high school students in the US and around the world are faced with the question of whether they should take the SAT or the ACT. Unless you pursue only the colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT, you will inevitably face the dilemma of whether you should write one of the tests or both. If you’re one of those who are wondering between SAT vs ACT, here’re some facts about their structure.

Structure of SAT

The SAT, an acronym for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is a standardized test used by colleges and universities as part of their admissions process. Developed by the College Board, the SAT is approximately a 3-hour test + 50-minute optional essay, and it consists of two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math.

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section is split into the SAT Reading Test and the SAT Writing and Language Test. The Reading Test with a testing time of 65 minutes contains 52 multiple-choice questions that students must answer based on passages or pairs of passages. These passages come from various sources and themes, such as literature, historical documents, social sciences, and natural sciences.

The Writing and Language Test with a testing time of 35 minutes, on the other hand, includes 44 multiple-choice questions focused on grammar, vocabulary in context, and editing skills. This portion of the test assesses your ability to identify and correct grammatical errors, and to improve sentences and paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the SAT Math section, split into two parts – one allowing calculators and one not – includes multiple-choice questions and student-produced responses. The calculator-free part aims to evaluate your problem-solving abilities, while the calculator-permitted section tests your quantitative problem-solving and arithmetic skills. This part of the exam has a testing time of 80 minutes with 58 questions.

The total score for the SAT falls between 400 and 1600. By examining the cross-test scores and subscores for the various sections, you can accurately identify your strong and weak areas. It's essential to understand that there isn't a "failing" score, as colleges evaluate several other elements besides your SAT score during the admissions process.

Structure of ACT

Now that you’re more familiar with the SAT, let’s review the structure of its competitor, the ACT.

The ACT, which stands for American College Testing, is another standardized test popular among colleges and universities to assess high school student's readiness for college-level academics. The ACT is developed and administered by ACT, Inc.

The ACT is a 2-hour 55-minute test + 50-minute optional essay, comprising four sections: ACT English, ACT Math, ACT Reading, and ACT Science.

The English section, lasting 45 minutes and comprising 75 questions, is intended to measure your comprehension and knowledge of English language conventions, as well as your proficiency in crafting effective writing. It covers various aspects, including punctuation, grammar and usage, sentence structure, strategy, organization, and style.

The Math section is allotted 60 minutes and is made up of 60 questions. This portion of the ACT encompasses a broad array of mathematical topics, including algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Notably, unlike the SAT, where calculators are disallowed in certain parts, the ACT allows calculator use throughout the entire Math section.

The Reading section is set for 35 minutes and includes 40 questions. This component, akin to the SAT, gauges your reading comprehension skills. It provides several passages followed by multiple-choice questions designed to test your comprehension of the text, your ability to infer, and your skill to compare and contrast information.

A distinctive aspect of the ACT, as compared to the SAT, is the addition of a Science section. This 35-minute section, consisting of 40 questions, evaluates your abilities to interpret, analyze, evaluate, reason, and solve problems within a natural sciences framework.

The ACT composite scores range from 1–36. For the optional essay portion, writing domain scores are provided on a scale of 2–12.

Working on a college essay? Check this out:

What Skills Are Tested More on SAT vs ACT?

While both the SAT and ACT claim to evaluate your readiness for college, they have different points of emphasis when it comes to skills assessment.

The SAT tends to lean more towards assessing reasoning skills and the ability to solve problems in a contextual sense. This approach extends to all parts of the SAT. For example, the Reading Test is less about understanding the details of the text, and more about understanding the underlying ideas and themes, and the ways in which the author builds and supports an argument.

The Writing and Language Test, on the other hand, focuses on your command of evidence, words in context, and your understanding of English conventions. You are required to improve passages, fix mistakes, and edit for effective language use.

The Math section of the SAT measures your knowledge in mathematics and your ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems in context. It evaluates your understanding of the mathematical concepts learned throughout your years in school and your ability to apply these principles to solve practical problems.

On the other hand, the ACT is more knowledge-based and straightforward in its approach, assessing what you've learned in school. It leans more towards examining your ability to recall and apply knowledge rather than analyzing your problem-solving abilities.

However, the ACT does have a section that tests your ability to think on your feet. The ACT Science section doesn't test specific science facts but rather your ability to interpret and analyze scientific data. The Science section is not necessarily a test of your knowledge in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Earth/Space sciences. Instead, it focuses on your skills in interpreting data and scientific information presented in various formats such as graphs, tables, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints.

On the other hand, the Math section of the ACT also covers a broader range of topics than the SAT, assessing your knowledge in a wide range of areas from arithmetic and geometry to trigonometry and statistics. It is designed to measure the mathematical skills that students typically acquire by the end of the 11th grade.

In essence, if you're a student who enjoys a more analytical and reasoning-based approach, the SAT might suit you better. On the contrary, if you prefer a more content-based and straightforward approach, the ACT might be the better option for you. Though we should warn you that both tests will attempt to assess both your existing knowledge and your ability to apply it in new contexts, so nothing is just black or white.

However, the choice between SAT and ACT is not just about your preferences or strengths. It may also be influenced by the colleges in the US, universities in Canada, or around the world that you're targeting. 

What Universities Accept Both SAT and ACT?

Most universities accept both SAT and ACT scores, including the Ivy League schools, UC schools, and other renowned institutions. In fact, the easiest Ivy League school to get into, Cornell University, made the score submission optional.

Here are the top 25 universities that accept both SAT and ACT:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  2. Duke University
  3. Georgetown University
  4. University of Florida
  5. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  6. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  7. Georgia Institute of Technology
  8. Tulane University
  9. University of Georgia
  10. Florida State University
  11. George Washington University
  12. Indiana University--Bloomington
  13. Stony Brook University--SUNY
  14. Elon University
  15. New Jersey Institute of Technology
  16. University of South Florida
  17. Miami University
  18. University of Arizona
  19. Gallaudet University
  20. University of Central Florida
  21. Duquesne University
  22. Florida International University
  23. Quinnipiac University
  24. Virginia Commonwealth University
  25. University of Arkansas

This practice of accepting both SAT and ACT scores is common among most universities, as they understand that different students may perform better on different tests due to the different focuses of the SAT and ACT.

Some colleges even go a step further by adopting a "test-optional" policy. This policy allows you to decide whether or not you want to submit your SAT or ACT scores as part of your application. Institutions like the University of Chicago and Bowdoin College fall into this category. They believe that standardized test scores may not fully capture a student's potential or ability, and thus, they offer you the choice.

The key here is to check the admission requirements of each university you're interested in. Most universities will clearly state on their admissions page whether they accept SAT, ACT, or both, or if they have a test-optional policy.

However, are there universities that only accept one of the tests? Let's explore this in the next section.

Here're some tips for those looking to get into college with a lower GPA:

SAT vs ACT: Which Universities Only Take One of Them?

You might be surprised to learn that virtually most secondary institutions in the US and beyond accept both the SAT and ACT. This includes Ivy League schools, public and private universities, liberal arts colleges, and more. Therefore, listing off schools that accept only one or the other would be challenging, as it's a rarity.

While it's uncommon, there can be exceptions. Some universities might prefer one test for specific programs, scholarships, or circumstances. For instance, a particular scholarship might require the SAT Subject Tests, or a specific program might weigh ACT scores more heavily due to the nature of the course.

International universities might also have a preference. Although the SAT is generally more globally recognized, many institutions worldwide are beginning to accept the ACT as well. In the end, the key is to research each university's individual admission requirements.

Specialized or vocational schools might also have specific requirements. For example, certain nursing programs might require the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) rather than the SAT or ACT. Technical schools might lean towards the ACT because of the Science section, which aligns well with their course content.

These cases underline the significance of researching and understanding the specific requirements of each university and program that you're interested in. Even if it's rare, a university's unique requirement could significantly affect your application.

SAT vs ACT: Which One Should You Take?

The choice between the SAT and ACT ultimately comes down to you - your strengths, preferences, and the requirements of the universities you aspire to attend. Each test has its unique features and focuses on different aspects of knowledge and skills.

If you find that your strengths align more with reasoning and problem-solving skills, you might want to consider the SAT. If you prefer a straightforward, knowledge-based approach, the ACT might be the better choice for you.

Also, remember to consider the universities you plan to apply to. Most universities accept both tests, but there might be specific programs or scholarships that prefer one test over the other.

Finally, it might be a good idea to take a practice test for both the SAT and ACT to see which one you're more comfortable with. The tests are different, and you might find one more intuitive or easier to navigate than the other.

Remember, there's no 'better' test between the SAT vs ACT. It's about which test better showcases your skills and increases your chances of getting into the university of your dreams. You've got this!


1. What is the primary difference between the SAT and ACT?

The primary difference lies in the structure and focus of the tests. The SAT focuses on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while the ACT is more straightforward, testing what you've learned in school. Additionally, the ACT includes a Science section, unlike the SAT which doesn’t have one.

2. Is the ACT easier than the SAT?

It's not accurate to say one test is easier than the other. The perception of difficulty often depends on a person's strengths and weaknesses. Some may find the SAT easier, while others may favor the ACT.

3. Should I take both the SAT and ACT?

It's not necessary to take both tests. Universities and colleges accept either score. Taking practice tests for both can help you decide which one is right for you.

4. How many times can I take the SAT or ACT?

You can take the SAT or ACT as many times as you want. However, it's recommended to focus on quality over quantity. It's better to take the test once and prepare thoroughly before you take it.

5. How do colleges view the SAT and ACT scores?

Colleges view SAT and ACT scores as part of a larger portfolio that includes your GPA, coursework, college recommendation letters, college essays, and extracurricular for college.

6. What is a 'test-optional' policy for SAT vs ACT?

A 'test-optional' policy allows applicants to decide whether or not they want to submit their SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. Some universities believe that standardized test scores may not fully capture a student's potential and thus offer this option.

7. Can I use a calculator on the SAT or ACT?

Yes, both tests allow the use of calculators on specific portions of the Math section. For the SAT, calculators are allowed in one of the two Math sections. On the ACT, calculators are allowed throughout the entire Math section. Remember, it's important to check which types of calculators are permitted.

8. Which test emphasizes vocabulary more, SAT or ACT?

The SAT places a stronger emphasis on vocabulary compared to the ACT.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting


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