ACT vs. SAT: Which Do Colleges Prefer?

February 04, 2021 · 7 minute read

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ACT vs. SAT: Which Do Colleges Prefer?

Ambitious high school students do everything they can to stand out amongst the very crowded crowd of college applicants. Standardized testing is just one of many challenging hoops students have to jump through on their way to higher education. Which is why some students and their parents may be wondering exactly where their dream colleges stand on the age old issue of ACT vs SAT.

While in many ways the ACT and SAT are similar exams, they have some differing factors and their importance weighs differently depending on the college or university of your choice. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between these tests, which one you should take, and how colleges feel about these two exams.

Purpose, Structure, and Cost

The SAT and ACT are two exams that serve the same purpose. Colleges utilize both exams to determine admission and award merit-based scholarships. Both tests are similar in length and structure, with the SAT taking three hours (without essay) and 3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay to complete). The ACT takes 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay) and 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay) to complete.

The SAT has multiple pricing options based on what parts of the exam the student chooses to take. For the 2020-2021 school year, the base price, which includes the main sections of math and reading/writing, costs $52.00. Adding on the optional essay portion of the exam brings the cost to an additional $68.00. Note that starting in the 2021 school year, the essay portion will only be offered as a part of a state’s accountability assessment program.

The cost may rise if a student enrolls in the exam during the late registration period, opts to sign up via phone, or alters an existing registration. Being admitted to a school via the wait list also incurs extra fees, as do regional fees for students taking the SATs outside of the United States. Included in the registration fees are the option to send scores to four schools for free (for up to nine days after the test), but sending the scores to multiple colleges costs more. As does rush ordering scores or electing to verify a score.

When applying for college, exams are some of the unexpected costs students will incur. During the 2020-2021 school year, the ACT exam costs $55 to take (without the essay portion) to $70 (with the essay portion). This cost covers taking the exam and includes reports for the exam taker, their high school, and up to four colleges.

Additional fees may occur for late registration, standby testing, changing the date or center of your test, or sending scores to a fifth and sixth college. Requesting additional score reports, test information release, and telephone re-registration also involves paying extra fees.

The Subject Matter

These two exams cover similar subject matter and include an optional essay portion, although there are some key differences worth noting when it comes to preparing to take these exams. The main difference between the ACT and SAT subject matter is that the ACT has a “science reasoning” section of the exam, whereas the SAT doesn’t.

However, both exams cover topics relating to math reading, and writing type subjects. More specifically, the SAT covers “reading” and “writing and language,” and the ACT covers “English” and “reading.”

Both exams have an optional essay portion. The SAT is designed to test a student’s comprehension of a source text. The ACT on the other hand looks at how the exam taker evaluates and analyzes complex issues.

When it comes to the mathematics portion of the exam, the SAT focuses on arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis. The ACT tests students on their arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry, trigonometry, and probability and statistics knowledge. Each exam has differing calculator policies. For the ACT, students can use their calculator for all math questions. Whereas with the SAT, only select math questions allow calculator usage.

How Each Exam is Scored

Both the SAT and ACT have unique scoring systems. Here’s a bit of information on each.

How the SAT is Scored

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600. Breaking down the scoring process a bit further, the SAT has not just a “total score,” but “section scores.” Each of the main sections, reading/writing and math, may be scored up to 800 points. These scores are then combined for the total.

If an exam taker chooses to complete the essay portion of the exam, the score received for the essay will not contribute to the total score and will appear separately on the final report. The essay will still receive a score that measures a student’s reading, analysis, and writing abilities. Each of those skills will receive a score ranging from 2 to 8.

Last but not least, students will receive subscores, evaluating their performance of certain or subject areas. These scores are included as a part of the total score, but this breakdown can be insightful for students looking to retake the test and improve their skill set.

How the ACT is Scored

The ACT is scored on a scale of one to 36. The ACT scoring system begins by taking into account how many questions a student answers correctly. The “raw scores” which represent the number of correct answers on each test are then converted to “scale scores.” Each subject section—English, Math, Reading, and Science—receives a scale score.

The “composite score,” which ranges from one to 36, is an average of each subject test, rounded to the nearest whole number. The scoring process is completed after identifying the percentage of correctly answered questions.

Do Colleges Prefer the ACT or SAT?

When it comes to determining if colleges prefer the ACT or the SAT exam, there is no one clear answer. Many people believe that the SAT is more popular, especially with elite colleges, but that is a higher education urban legend.

While some schools require students to take either the SAT or ACT, many accept both scores equally. Double check with your top college choices to see which exam scores they accept.

There is some thought that the region of a college may indicate the preference of an exam. College Raptor analyzed the numbers of students who applied to colleges with ACT or SAT scores (numbers that colleges and universities report to the government) and found that some states lean more in one direction towards ACT or SAT. For example, Wisconsin leans heavily towards an ACT preference, where 95.27% of applicants submitted ACT scores.

Knowing Which Test to Take

While some students opt to take both the SAT or ACT, some choose just one in order to focus on preparing for the test they believe they are more likely to score higher on. Neither test is generally easier than the other, but some students may find their different structures suit their needs better.

The ACT is considered by some to be more appealing to students with strong English skills as the exam focuses more on verbal skills, whereas the SAT may be a better fit for those who excel in math.

Taking a full-length practice test of each exam can give students a better idea of which test they’ll score higher on. Once they’ve determined which is a better fit, they can spend their time and resources preparing for just one test instead of two. For students who feel comfortable preparing for and taking both exams, doing so can be beneficial as they will have two scores to choose between to send to colleges.

Paying for College

The options don’t stop after a student completes the test (or tests) of their choice. Once they use their amazing scores to get into the college of their dreams, they and their parents will be left with making some pretty big decisions to make, especially when it comes to paying for college. Luckily, there are options at help offset the out of pocket costs. Once those are exhausted, students can apply for private student loans and or parent loans.

There will be acceptance offers to consider, financial aid packages to unravel, and cost comparisons for each potential school. That’s why SoFi teamed up with Edmit to offer access to Edmit Plus which can help students estimate their financial aid options, compare the cost of attendance, and learn more about the merit aid and scholarships available to them.

Some students may find that even after options like federal student loans and scholarships, there is still a gap in paying for college. Private student loans are one option available to students looking to pay for their education.

At SoFi, private student loans are fee free and offer borrowers four repayment options to choose from. Potential borrowers can find out if they pre-qualify online and have the option to add a cosigner.

Learn more about how Edmit Plus can help you navigate the process of paying for college or find out more about using SoFi private student loans to help pay for college.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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