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The ACT and SAT: Which Test is Right for You?

By Emma Diehl · October 04, 2022 · 6 minute read

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The ACT and SAT: Which Test is Right for You?

The SAT and ACT are both standardized tests that colleges use to evaluate a student during the admission process. Some schools will accept both SAT and ACT scores while others show preference to one, and some schools don’t require students to submit scores for either test.

It’s possible to compare estimated scores across the two tests using a simple conversion chart or formula. It’s also worth understanding how the two tests are different, and what a student can expect when taking each test.

ACT and SAT History

In 1926, the SAT was developed as the Army Alpha, to measure the IQ of Army recruits. Over time, the format and audience for the Scholastic Aptitude Test changed. The scoring method, format, and subjects have been adjusted over the years to better reflect the high school curriculum and college application process.

The current version of the SAT takes three hours and includes sections on math, reading comprehension, and writing. The highest score a person can achieve on the SAT is 1600.

The American College Test, created in reaction to the SAT, was first administered in 1959. University of Iowa professor of education Everett Franklin Linquist developed the standardized test to better evaluate a student’s practical knowledge instead of reasoning skills that the SAT focuses on.

The modern ACT takes two hours and 55 minutes (add 40 for the optional writing section) to complete. The test includes sections on English, math, reading, and science, and the optional writing portion. The highest score possible is 36.

Colleges and universities generally accept both the ACT and SAT, but preparing for and taking the two tests is not the same. Understanding the differences between the ACT and SAT might help students decide which test to take and how they might best maximize their score.

Difference Between the ACT and SAT Tests

Other than the score a test taker receives, the SAT and ACT have several differences that might inform a student’s decision to prepare for one over another. Students are taking both tests now more than ever, but preparing for each is different, and it’s possible to prefer one test experience over another.

Scoring

One of the most obvious differences between the two tests is the score. An ACT score ranges from 1 to 36, and there’s no penalty for getting a question wrong. The score is calculated by adding the raw scores of each section, then dividing by four to get the composite score (out of 36).

SAT takers get a score between 400 and 1600. Once again, there’s no penalty for answering a question wrong, and the score goes up with every right answer. Section scores are added together to yield the total score (out of 1600).

Type of Testing

There’s a common belief that students’ strengths in the classroom might allow them to test better on one standardized test over the other. The ACT, with a deeper focus on verbal skills, might be a better fit for students who excel in English classes. Those with strong math skills could prefer the SAT, with a bigger emphasis on math questions.

Both tests have a math section, but the SAT covers data analysis, while the ACT will have questions about probability and statistics.

Format and Subjects

Even when the essay portion is included, the ACT is shorter than the SAT. However, the SAT has 154 questions, while the ACT has 215 — how does that compute? SAT takers have an average of one minute and 10 seconds on each question, compared with 49 seconds for the ACT.

Time per question could be important to a student’s test taking strategy, especially when factoring in the difficulty levels of each test. In the SAT’s math section, the questions become harder the further a student moves along. The same goes for the ACT’s math section, as well as its science section, where passages and the questions become more difficult as the test progresses.

The ACT has more sections than the SAT, including multiple-choice questions on:

•   English: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure

•   Math: algebra, geometry, trigonometry

•   Reading: passage comprehension on fiction, humanities, and sciences

•   Science: comprehension, including summaries, charts, and graphs

•   Writing (optional)

The SAT has fewer sections, with all multiple-choice questions about:

•   Reading: comprehension questions based on passages

•   Writing and language: grammar, editing, and vocabulary

•   Math: algebra, trigonometry, and geometry

The SAT used to have an optional essay section, but it was discontinued in 2021.

The major differentiator between the SAT and ACT experience might be the ACT’s dedicated science section. The SAT includes questions about science, but they are dispersed across the test.

Pricing

The cost of taking the SAT and ACT is similar:

•   SAT: $60

•   ACT: $63, $88 with optional essay

The cost of taking the test shouldn’t keep a student from doing so. Both the College Board and ACT offer fee waivers for students who meet the requirements.

High school students preparing for the SATs may also be getting ready to pay for college and manage their own finances for the first time. SoFi’s Ca$h Course: A Student’s Guide to Money has some tips and strategies that can help.

Evaluating options for paying for college is another important piece of the college preparation puzzle. Options include grants, scholarships, and undergraduate loans, including both private and federal student loans.

Recommended: What Are Pell Grants?

Geography

Because the ACT was founded out of a Midwestern university, the test is somewhat more popular in middle America. The SAT has its origins in testing aptitude for admission to Northeastern educational Army institutions. Students on the East and West coasts are slightly more likely to take the SAT than the ACT.

Because of these geographic trends, students on the coasts might find more SAT prep courses than ACT prep courses, and vice versa.

Converting Test Scores

SAT to ACT conversion is a hot topic. Comparing the tests on their face is like comparing apples to oranges. However, if a student takes both, it helps to figure out which one they performed better on. That means finding a way to compare one test score to another.

Here’s how the ACT’s composite scores compare to the SAT:

ACT Score

SAT Range

36 1570-1600
35 1530-1560
34 1490-1520
33 1450-1480
32 1420-1440
31 1390-1410
30 1360-1380
29 1330-1350
28 1300-1320
27 1260-1290
26 1230-1250
25 1200-1220
24 1160-1190
23 1130-1150
22 1100-1120
21 1060-1090
20 1030-1050
19 990-1020
18 960-980
17 920-950
16 990-910
15 830-870
14 870-820
13 730-770
12 690-720
11 650-680
10 620-640
9 590-610

Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

The SAT and ACT are both widely accepted by colleges and universities in the U.S. It’s common for students to take both the SAT and ACT. If you are deciding which test is best for you, consider taking a full, timed practice test for each type. This can give you a rough estimate of where you may score when you take the exam.

The Takeaway

Both the SAT and ACT are standardized tests designed to gauge a student’s readiness for college. One test is not inherently easier than the other and both are accepted at a wide array of colleges and universities. Taking a timed practice test can be one of the best ways to roughly estimate your score.

Paying for college is another important step in preparing for college. Students may consider using a combination of grants, scholarships, and student loans. Private student loans may lack borrower protections offered by federal student loans, so federal loans are generally prioritized over private loans. This private student loan guide has more information on the differences between private and federal student loans.

Borrowers interested in private student loans could consider SoFi — where private student loans have no fees, applications can be completed online and you can easily add a cosigner.

SoFi private student loans offer competitive interest rates for qualifying borrowers, flexible repayment plans, and no fees.

3 Student Loan Tips

1.    Can’t cover your school bills? If you’ve exhausted all federal aid options, private student loans can fill gaps in need, up to the school’s cost of attendance, which includes tuition, books, housing, meals, transportation, and personal expenses.

2.    Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.

3.    Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans peppering the landscape: private student loans, federal Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.


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