ACT vs. SAT: Which Do Colleges Prefer?

August 03, 2023 · 6 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 differences that you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing which test to take. Keep reading to learn more about how these tests compare, 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 and the ACT taking 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay), and 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay) to complete.

For the 2023-2024 school year, it costs $60 to register for the SAT. There are additional charges if you change test centers ($25) or you register late ($30). Your first four score reports are free if you order them within nine days after the test date. After that, any additional reports you want to send to multiple colleges cost $14 each.

The cost to register for the ACT for the 2023-2024 school year is $68.00 (with no writing) and $93.00 (with writing). There are additional charges if you change test centers ($42) or you register late ($36). Your registration fee covers reports for you, your high school, and up to four colleges (if you provide the codes when you register). Additional score reports are $18.00. To add or remove the writing test, the fee is $25.00.

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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 and an optional essay, 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.”

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.

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.

Recommended: How to Help Your Child with SAT Practice

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.

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Do Colleges Prefer the ACT or SAT?

Both the ACT and SAT are widely accepted by U.S. colleges and schools generally don’t have a preference for one over the othere. Many people believe that the SAT is more popular, especially with elite colleges, but that is a higher education urban legend.

There may, however, be some regional preferences between ACT vs SAT. 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, while many states were split down the middle, a few lean more in one direction towards ACT or SAT. For example, Wisconsin leans heavily towards an ACT preference — there, 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 you a better idea of which test you’ll score higher on. Once you’ve determined which is a better fit, you can spend their time and resources preparing for just one test instead of two. If you feel comfortable preparing for and taking both exams, doing so can be beneficial as you will have two scores to choose between to send to colleges.

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Paying for College

The options don’t stop after you complete the test (or tests) of your choice. Once you use your solid scores to get into the college of your dreams, you and your family may be faced with some other big decisions, especially when it comes to paying for college.

Luckily, there are options — including grants, scholarships, subsidized loans, and even unsubsidized federal student loans — that can help offset the out-of-pocket costs. If you’ve exhausted those avenues and still have a funding gap, you may want to explore private student loans and or parent loans.

Private student loans are available through banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Unlike federal loans, applying for a private loan requires a credit check. Students who have solid financials (or a cosigner who does) typically qualify for the best rates and terms. Just keep in mind that private loans don’t come with the same protections, like government-sponsored forgiveness programs, that you get with federal loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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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.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


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