By Andy Lee

Are you taking the SAT or the ACT? This is one of the most common and perplexing questions that most high school students confront when they begin to embark on the college application process. Contrary to popular belief, these two college entrance exams actually share a lot in common. First of all, they both seek to assess students’ readiness for higher education. Secondly, the structure and content of these two exams are more similar than they are different. Both exams are also employed by college admissions officers as a major factor in allocating seats and scholarship awards. The vast majority of universities accept either exam and treat them equally in the admission process.

Despite all these commonalities, however, it’s helpful to compare both exams to understand which is the right fit for the student. The following table provides a comprehensive side by side comparison of these two standardized exams.




Total Length

· 3 hours (without essay)

· 3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)

· 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)

· 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)


· Reading

· Writing and Language

· Math (without a calculator)

· Math (with a calculator)

· Optional Essay


· English

· Math

· Reading

· Science

· Optional Essay



· Total Score Range: 400-1,600

· The Evidence-Based Reading & Writing section and the Math section are each scored on a scale of 200-800. The total score is the sum of these two sections.


· Total Score Range: 1-36

· Each section of the exam is scored on a scale of 1-36. The total score is the average of all the sections.


· Less time pressure

· Slightly more time allotted per question

· Provides commonly used math formulas

· Questions are sometimes presented in a marginally more straightforward manner

· Use of calculator is allowed on all math questions



· For students who struggle with computation, this exam contains some questions that do not allow the use of calculators.

· More challenging vocabulary

· Slightly longer exam time

· For students who are weak at analyzing graphs, charts and data, this exam contains a Science section that assesses such skills

· There are more questions. There are 215 ACT questions and 154 SAT questions.


What to do next?

In order to decide on the appropriate exam to take, students should take one official practice test for each exam. In an attempt to closely mimic actual test taking conditions, take the practice exams in a quiet setting according to the official time limits. Once both practice tests have been completed, their total scores can be computed and compared. The easiest way to compare scores is by converting the total ACT test score to the total SAT test score using the conversion chart published on both the official ACT and College Board (the organization that administers the SAT exam) websites. To ensure accuracy, is it highly recommended that this process is repeated at least three times. Ultimately, students should prepare for the exam that they have consistently scored higher in.

Standardized test scores are a critical component of the college admissions process. By choosing carefully and preparing thoroughly for these exams, applicants are putting themselves in the best possible position to gain entrance into their dream school.