What are the differences between the ACT and SAT?

by Trevann Hamilton | Last Updated: March 9, 2023

Both SAT and ACT are exams taken by high school students for college admission. While there are colleges that are test-optional, students still took either exam last year.  Before you decide whether you should take the SAT, ACT, or both, it’s worth educating yourself on the exams. For example, you’re probably curious about the differences between the ACT and SAT. Here is a detailed guide about the differences between the ACT and SAT, insight into the scoring methods, and so much more. 

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Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

Get to know the ACT and SAT exams

While pursuing the ACT or SAT exams may seem intimidating, you’re in good company. Tons of students just like you take these exams every year. 

According to USA Today, 1.3 million students took the ACT exam in 2022. 

Similarly, US News reported that 1.7 million students took the SAT in 2022 as well. 

While the SAT may seem more popular, you should still do the exam that makes the most sense for you. You can actually take both the ACT and SAT exams if you want to. 

But before you can decide which exam to take, the first step is understanding the exams. Once you get a better understanding of the exams, you can make a more informed decision about which one to take and hopefully settle some of your nervousness. 

Let’s get into the basics of the ACT and the SAT. 

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What is the ACT?

ACT, which stands for American College Testing, is a multiple-choice college entrance exam that some students opt to take.

The exam duration without the essay component is 2 hours and 55 minutes and 3 hours and 35 minutes with the essay component. 

Whether or not you do the writing component depends on your personal preference or the schools you’re applying to. Some schools require the writing section, while others do not. If you’re not sure if your school requires the writing component, check their individual websites to find out.

If you’re interested in taking the ACT, you should know there are four main sections besides the optional writing section:

  • English
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Science
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Here’s an overview of what you can expect from each section.

For the English section, you’ll get several passages and essays followed by multiple-choice questions. They’re not only trying to find out writing and language skills, but they’re also examining your interests and your experiences. 

If you’re curious about the reading section, ACT says this section is designed to measure your ability to, “read closely, reason logically about texts using evidence, and integrate information from multiple sources.” The reading section comprises multiple sections of long prose and short prose passages.

The Math section, on the other hand, will be testing the skills you would have learned up to grade 12. ACT says, “Knowledge of basic formulas and computational skills are assumed as background for the problems, but recall of complex formulas and extensive computation are not required.” You’ll be allowed to use a calculator.

Finally, the Science section requires you to have background knowledge of biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences, and physics. ACT says introductory courses in the subject areas may be required to complete this section. You won’t be allowed to use a calculator in this section. 

What is the SAT?

Just like the ACT, the SAT is a multiple-choice college entrance exam. 

The SAT is administered by the College Board and lasts 3 hours. Unlike the ACT, the SAT only has two tests; mathematics and evidence-based reading and writing.

According to the College Board, the mathematics section is divided into two sections, one where you can use a calculator and one where you cannot. You can expect trigonometry, geometry, algebra, problem-solving and data analysis, and manipulation of complex equations.

On the other hand, the evidence-based reading and writing component, of course, measures different skills. Firstly, this section is separated into a Reading Test and a Writing and Language Test.

College Board says the reading section examines your comprehension and reasoning Skills. The Writing and Language Test is designed to show how you use standard English conventions in grammar and punctuation as well as a range of other skills. 

SAT Essay and Subject Tests

Registering for ACT and SAT tests

Registering for both the ACT and SAT is pretty straightforward and is typically done online. There are multiple tests and registration dates for each test every year. If you miss your desired registration days, there are late registration dates, however, these come with a late fee. Here’s what you need to know about registering for ACT and SAT tests in 2023.

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If you’re wondering when to take your ACT, you should know that you have many options. However, most college hopefuls take the exam in the fall of their senior year or the spring of their junior year. 

However, you can take the exam: 

  • February
  • April
  • June
  • July
  • September
  • October
  • December

Here are the registration and test dates for the rest of 2023. 

RegistrationLate Registration*Test Date
March 10March 24April 15
May 5May 19June 10
June 16June 23July 15**

Source: ACT

*Late registration attracts a late fee

** There are no test centers for New York on July 15th

According to ACT’s website, “Consider choosing a test date at least two months ahead of the application deadlines of all the colleges and scholarship agencies you might want to apply to.”

They recommend that you choose your date at least two months before your application because it can take up to 2 months before you can get your results. 

ACT’s website also says that you’ll get your multiple choice test scores 2–8 weeks after you do the test. However, if you do the writing exam, you’ll get all your scores within 5-8 weeks. 

Before you register, you’ll need to have the following things handy:

  • Credit card or other payment
  • Computer with internet
  • High school course details
  • Headshot photo

Once you have these items ready, hop on the website and create a MyACT account. The registration process takes an average of 30 minutes.

FYI, the cost to do the test is $50.50 USD and $67.00 USD if you’re doing the essay component. However, if you’re planning on takng the ACT outside of the United States and you’re not an American citizen, you can expect to pay around $100 USD extra.


Just like the ACT, students usually take the SAT, in the spring of their junior year or fall of their senior year. However, there are many dates available.

Generally speaking, you can do the SAT:

  • August
  • October
  • November
  • December
  • March 
  • May 
  • June 

If you want to register for the SAT, you can go directly to the College Board website to create an account. Just like registering for the ACT, registering for the SAT should take about 30 minutes and a computer with internet. However, you can contact the College Board if you’re not able to register online. 

To register, according to the College Board you’ll need to enter:

  • Personal information such as your full name and mailing address
  • A photo with a clear head and shoulders view
  • Your high school
  • Your test date and test center 
  • Payment or waiver
  • Confirmation of your agreement of the terms and conditions 

The cost for the test is $55.00 USD but low-income students can apply for a fee waiver. 

If you want to register for the SAT this year, here are some dates to keep in mind for 2023:


Late Registration

Test Date

February 10

February 28

March 11

April 7

April 25

May 6

May 4

May 23

June 3

Source: College Board 

How are the tests scored?

The ACT and SAT are scored differently that’s why the marks look so drastically different.

Even though both exams are scored differently, it doesn’t necessarily mean one is harder or easier than the other, just different. 

Here is an overview of how each exam is scored.

Scoring scale on the ACT

Your score can range from 1-36 for the ACT. 

According to ACT, they count your correct answers and then convert that number to a scale score. ACT then continued to explain their scoring by saying, “Your Composite score and each test score (English, mathematics, reading, science) range from 1 (low) to 36 (high). The Composite score is the average of your four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. Fractions less than one-half are rounded down; fractions one-half or more are rounded up.”

Your score is an average of the score you get on each component and rounded to the next whole number.

Take a look at the sections and the number of questions in each.


Number of Questions









Source: ACT

Scoring scale on the SAT

For the SAT, your total score is a combination of the scores you get on both sections; evidence-based reading and writing and math.

Your score can range from 400-1600. College Board says in order to score your exam they tally all the correct answers. This is known as your raw score. Then they convert each of the raw section scores to a scaled score of 200–800. 

In addition to that, on the paper-based test, you can receive additional scores outside the total and sections. 

The SAT has 154 multiple-choice questions, here is a table highlighting the number of questions per section. 


Number of Questions



Writing & Language




Source: Princeton Review

How to read a score report

After you do your exams, you will get your results in a matter of weeks. Your score report may be a little confusing at first glance. Here is what you need to look out for on your score reports. 

Reading your SAT score report

The first thing you may want to look for is your Total Score. That will be between 400-1600. Underneath that, you’ll find your section scores. That’s where you’ll see the scores you got for Reading and Writing as well as Math. 

In addition to that, there is a percentile section that showed how you measure up to the rest of the students that took the tests at the same time as you. 

If you’re curious, you can check out a sample report here to get a more detailed view of SAT’s scoring. You’ll find other information on your score report such as test scores, score details, and test questions. 

Reading your ACT report

The ACT score report will look different than your SAT score report. Here are some things you have to look out for. 

The first thing you’d want to look for is the Composite Score. That will be between 1-36. You will also see the score for each section as well as a section just for the STEM subjects and the ELA subjects. Your STEM scores refer to your overall score on your science and math exam while ELA refers to the English Language Arts score. 

In addition to that, you’ll be able to see how you measure up with the other students in the state and country. You’ll also see your readiness for introductory college courses. 

You can check out a sample report here to get a more detailed view of ACT’s scoring. 

Frequently Asked Questions about the ACT and SAT?

What’s a percentile?

You may hear the word percentile a lot when it comes to your test score. We think College Board explains it best by saying “A student’s percentile rank represents the percentage of students whose score is equal to or lower than their score.”

For example, if your score report says that you’re in the 55th percentile, it means that 55% of a comparison group achieved scores at or below your score. 

What are average SAT and ACT scores?

The average SAT score is 1060, while the average ACT score is 21.

What do perfect scores look like on the SAT and ACT?

A perfect score on the SAT is 1600. On the other hand, a perfect score on the ACT is 36.

How many people get perfect scores on the ACT and SAT?

Getting a perfect score on the ACT or SAT is pretty rare. As a matter of fact, according to a report from ACT, only 5,579 students got a perfect score in 2020. While that number may sound like a lot, over a million people did the exam so less than 1% of students got a perfect score. 

The rarity of getting a perfect score on the SAT is the same. Only 8% of students scored between 1400-1600  on the SAT. As for a perfect score, the percentage is believed to be around or less than 1%.

What are the best colleges for students with a 1600 SAT or 36 ACT score?

Getting a perfect score on your SAT or ACT exam makes you a competitive applicant to any university. As a matter of fact, while you don’t need a perfect score to get into college, it stands out on any college application. 

Here are some of the best colleges that you can get into with a perfect test score:

  • University of Notre Dame
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Boston College
  • Stanford University
  • Harvard University
  • Yale University
  • University of Chicago
  • Cornell University
  • University of Southern California
  • Brown University

However, please remember that your test scores are not the only thing an admissions officer is looking for. Therefore make sure you pay attention to the other components of your application.

Conclusion + Next Steps

So, what are the differences between the ACT and SAT? While they’re both popular college entrance exams with many similarities, they have key differences. The main difference is that the ACT has more subject areas than the SAT and is scored on a different scale. Whether or not you choose one or the other is based on personal preference. 

While it’s important to get a good score on your ACT or SAT, you’ll need to write a winning essay to seal the deal. If you need help with crafting a well-written essay, download our workbook. 

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Trevann is an experienced freelance writer who loves learning new things. Her background in STEM makes her a research whiz and her obsession to clearly explain to people what she found makes her the ideal blogger.