The question is simple: ACT or SAT? The answer is a little more complicated.
As both tests are equally acceptable at colleges and universities that require standardized tests, the choice should ultimately be based on how a student performs on each exam. First, let’s consider some logistics in terms of when each is offered, their length, their costs, and their scoring.
When can you take the exams?
Each test is offered seven times per year. The ACT is offered February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. The SAT is offered March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. Of these seven test dates, three of the tests offered have a special program in which you can pay a nominal fee to receive a copy of your real exam. ACT offers its Test Information Release for $20 in December, April, and June. SAT offers its Question-and-Answer Service for $18 in October, March, and May. A lot of students take advantage of this offering because they get to review their mistakes and learn from them. If you can plan ahead, we recommend you schedule your exam for one of those special test dates. There are also some special rules to note: for example, the July ACT test isn’t offered in the state of California, and neither the February nor July ACT test is offered in New York.
What are the length and cost of each exam?
The length and cost of the ACT and the SAT are comparable. The SAT is a little bit longer (5 more minutes without the essay and 15 more minutes with the essay), but when it comes to taking a four hour test, a difference of 15 minutes is negligible. The writing portion for both the SAT and ACT is optional since some colleges and universities don’t require the essay. But if you plan to apply to competitive schools, they will most likely require you to submit the essay score. On the fence? Plan to take the essay, so if you decide to apply to a college that requires it, you’ll be eligible.
How are the two exams scored?
ACT scores range between 1-36 with a score of 20 being the 50th percentile. SAT scores range between 400-1600 with a 1,000 being the 50th percentile. For instance, a 20 on the ACT is comparable to a 1,000 on the SAT; a 26 on the ACT is comparable to a 1220-1240 on the SAT; and a 30 on the ACT is comparable to a 1340-1360 on the SAT. For more details on ACT and SAT score comparisons, check out the ACT vs. SAT – What’s Right for You comparison table.
Here are a few questions to ponder when deciding between the exams:
- First, are you the type of test taker who likes to stop and smell the pencils? This comes down to pacing. How quickly do you like to work? The SAT gives students a little more time per question than the ACT.
- Next, how vast is your vocabulary? The SAT has more challenging vocabulary words than the ACT. Depending on how voracious a reader you are, your decision may come down to your comfort with advanced vocabulary.
- Is the calculator your best friend? All the questions on the ACT allow you to use a calculator. On the SAT, there’s a calculator portion and a non-calculator portion. If you couldn’t imagine working without a calculator, then the ACT is a better fit.
- How do you feel about interpreting scientific figures and tables? This skill is tested a bit more on the ACT, though it does appear on the SAT as well.
- Lastly, the essay: would you rather critique or create your own argument? What comes more naturally to you?
What is the take-home message?
In summary, when it comes to the frequency the tests are offered, the length, and the price, the SAT and ACT are very similar. It’s when you dive into the details of the content on each that the differences become more apparent. For more information on those specifics, please see our ACT vs SAT: Specific Content Differences blog.
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