SAT or ACT: Which Is Easier?

Photo of a student in a brown sweater sitting down in a classroom and taking the easiest standardized test for college
May 18, 2022
Differences Between the ACT and SATVocabularyMathReadingWritingTimingACT vs. SAT: Do Colleges Have a Preference?How to Choose Between the SAT and ACT SAT vs. ACT FAQs

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/15/22

Taking the SAT or ACT is a rite of passage for many high school students each year. But which test is easier: the ACT or the SAT? This guide will identify the differences between the ACT vs. SAT and help you determine which test is best for you. Read on to learn more! 

Many prospective students begin their college application process by comparing the ACT and SAT exams. Admissions committees use the Standards Admissions Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) to measure students’ readiness and abilities for college admission and merit-based scholarships. 

But what is the difference between the ACT and SAT? Which test is easier: the SAT or ACT? Which exam should you take? Do colleges prefer the ACT or SAT?

In this article we will discuss the various topics covered in each exam, and help you determine which is easier, the SAT or ACT. This article will help you identify what is the difference between the ACT and SAT, and decide which one is best for you to take when applying to college. 

The content and style of the SAT and ACT are very similar; certain factors differentiate on each test and each section, and how you handle pressure and your studying style help you determine which test is a better fit.

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Differences between the ACT and SAT

Despite being similar standardized tests, there are numerous differences between the ACT and SAT when assessing your ability and readiness for post-secondary education. While the SAT is seen as a more psychological test that evaluates learning aptitude, the ACT is more of a placement test used as an indicator for academic achievement and preparation.

For the SAT, you receive a score between 400 and 1600, and for the ACT, you receive a score from 1 – 36. The scoring numbers are different, and universities use a simple conversion chart to compare your test scores with other applicants.

The SAT is made up of 154 questions, while the ACT has 215.  The SAT requires more writing and problem solving, offering students more time to complete each section. The ACT questions, however, are more straightforward and require less time to answer.

While both the SAT and ACT have Math, Reading, and Writing sections, the ACT also has a Science section, and the SAT has an additional no-calculator needed math section with a basic formula page. As of June 2021, the ACT has an optional writing section with a prompt allowing you  to express your opinion on a subject and back them up with a convincing argument.

Vocabulary

The SAT gives off a more dignified test of your understanding of words and reading comprehension when it comes to vocabulary. The Reading Comprehension section offers rhetorical devices, contextual vocabulary, and words that usually require a dictionary search.

In contrast, the ACT does not have a section that strictly tests you on your knowledge of terminology. The ACT offers long reading passages with questions using rudimentary, conversational language. 

On the SAT, words such as ‘didactic,’ ‘erroneous,’ and ‘schadenfreude’ come up numerous times. There is a Sentence Completion section on the SAT with questions about vocabulary, giving you the option to choose the correct word within questions of varying difficulty. The vocabulary list below ranks the types of words used in order of difficulty:

Easy

Medium

Hard

While the ACT does not have questions about vocabulary directly,  they test your knowledge of terminology by asking you to: 

  1. Read a passage and answer questions about the author’s choice of words
  2. Explain the meaning of a word from the context it is used in 
  3. Decide which word best fits in a given sentence 

Studying vocabulary lists for the ACT is not very practical, so it’s better to understand word meanings and become a thoughtful reader. 

If you’re wondering whether the ACT or SAT is easier, the ACT may be better for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time studying vocabulary. This section usually depends on your comfort with your vocabulary – if you’re a seasoned reader intent on learning more words, the SAT is best for you. 

Math

The Math section of the SAT is divided into two subsections: a no-calculator allowed section and a calculator-allowed section. The test in total gives you 80 minutes to complete, with a total of 58 questions. The calculator portion has 38 questions and 55 minutes to complete. The no-calculator section has 20 questions and 25 minutes to complete. The SAT math questions are categorized into four sections:

The math section of the ACT is just one long section that offers 60 minutes to answer 60 questions, giving you approximately 60 seconds to answer each question.

These questions are categorized into two main categories only, with a fair percentage of questions in each category and its subcategory:

Reading

The types of questions in the reading sections depend on your comprehension skills as well as being aware of your weaknesses when analyzing the following question structures:

Breaking Down Long Passages

For the ACT, you must skim the whole reading passage to find the correct answer, while the SAT offers line numbers so you can pinpoint where in the passage can help you find the answer. The example ACT question below requires you to find that part in the passage if you are taking the ACT:

“It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that Abshu and the Masons would agree with which of the following statements about the best way to raise a child?”
1. “For a child to be happy, he or she must develop a firm basis in religion at an early age.”
2. “For a child to be fulfilled, he or she must be exposed to great works of art and literature that contain universal themes.”
3. “For a child to thrive and be a responsible member of society, he or she must develop a sense of discipline.”
4. “For a child to achieve greatness, he or she must attach importance to the community and not to the self.”

With the SAT, however, a good tip would be to read the questions first and the refer back to the reading passage with the required line numbers 

Evidence-Support Questions

If you have a gift for pinpointing specific points in texts to help support your answer, then the SAT would be the easier choice for you. SAT reading uses a lot of evidence-based questions, yet they do not appear on the ACT. These questions are based on questions that come before them and require you to cite specific lines and paragraphs as evidence for your answer to the aforementioned question. 

Here’s an example of an evidence-support question:

“Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” 
A) “Line 33 (‘His voice... refined’)” 
B) “Lines 49-51 (‘You... mind’)” 
C) “Lines 63-64 (‘Please... proposal’)” 
D) “Lines 71-72 (‘Eager... face’)”

These types of questions are rather tricky since they require high-level thinking and strong intuitive and reasoning skills. When deciding whether the SAT or ACT is easier in this instance, you would be favouring the ACT, since it does not have evidence-supporting questions, and you have trouble finding concrete reasons for your answer.

Doing well in this section comes down to intuition; a good memory for longer passages and smaller details are ideal for the ACT,  whereas skills such as information picking and critical reasoning are ideal for the SAT.

Writing

To determine whether the SAT or ACT is easier, you need to have a comprehensive understanding of the style of each exam. The essay section is usually optional for both tests, and many institutions still require an SAT and ACT essay/writing score to be considered for entry. You must know what to expect on each test before writing the essay.

The SAT and ACT essays each have unique challenges, going over a yearly redesign that changed both in the structure of each writing section as the grading chart for each essay answer. 

The ACT Essay

The ACT Essay is a 40-minute essay that measures reading, writing, and pre-writing skills. The section also allows you to brainstorm ideas and outline an essay structure. The essay prompt usually describes an issue, providing different perspectives (usually up to three) on the issue stated. You are given three objectives for this essay, to: 

  1. “Evaluate and analyze the perspectives”
  2. “State and develop your own perspective”
  3. “Explain the relationship between the passage’s perspective and those given”

You do not need to state your own personal opinion on the matter as it will not be graded. There is a good amount of reading that needs to be done before writing the essay. The essay focuses on your ability to do the following: 

Becoming familiar with the ACT grading rubric will help you to determine how best to use the 40-minute time limit. The rubric awards more points to writing that shows you understand the prompt. You must write a response using evidence and examples.

Use these points to help you write an excellent ACT essay: 

Following these points will help you write a compelling ACT essay worthy of top scores. 

The SAT Essay

The SAT Essay is a lengthy and challenging section. It offers an extended piece of nonfiction prose, usually article excerpts from Time Magazine, ranging from 650-800 words. It then asks you to write a five-paragraph essay where you identify, explain, and evaluate the text’s stylistic, rhetorical, and logical elements that adheres to its meaning. This section usually takes 50 minutes to complete.

The prompts usually follow a similar template: you write an essay explaining how the author builds an argument to persuade the reader. Do not state whether you agree with the claims;  instead, explain how they present their idea and their arguments. 

The SAT essay evaluates how well you understand the arguments in the passage and how a discussion is made. The essay will grant you three separate scores: 

  1. Reading score
  2. Analysis score 
  3. Writing score

This is a tough assignment no matter the circumstances, but it helps represent the reading and writing skills you learn in school, and also is predictive of the sort of reading, analysis and writing work you will do throughout college or university.

The difference between the ACT and SAT essays is that the SAT examines your understanding of how an argument works while the ACT essay asks you to make an argument. Understanding this is crucial when deciding which test to take. 

Timing

The SAT lasts three hours, not including a ten minute break and a five minute break in between. Time management is key when answering each question to earn a high score. In total, the SAT consists of a: 

The ACT takes three hours to complete, with 30-minute breaks in between. If you choose to do the essay, it can take up to three hours, 40 minutes to a little over four hours, including breaks, and it is sectioned as such: 

Table oultining information about the ACT exam, including what Sections are in the exam, the number of Questions per section, and your Time Allocated for each section

Some students may consider the ACT harder than the SAT because you must work faster to answer all questions before your time is up. 

What Time Does the ACT Start?

ACT test-takers are required to report to their test center by 8:00 am. The test begins after students are checked in and seated, usually by 8:30 am. Note that if you are taking the test on the computer, you may be taking the ACT at different times, including in the afternoon—be sure to look at your test ticket after you register for the ACT.

When it comes to timing, your pacing strategy is what makes or breaks your score. For English sections, answer all the easiest questions first so you will have time to work on the more challenging ones. For math, invest time in doing fewer questions to enhance your accuracy. For reading comprehension, time yourself on how fast you can read and obtain information. 

Be aggressive with the science section of the ACT and keep moving on, start with the easiest ones and move on to the more difficult ones. There are online practice tests that can help with your timing and understanding the content to give your best answer in a timely manner.

Do Colleges Prefer the ACT or SAT?

Most colleges don’t prefer one test over the other. Think critically about the differences between the ACT and SAT and choose whichever test you think suits you best. 

How to Choose Between the SAT and ACT 

After reading this article, you have a set idea of how each test differs in terms of time, question types, and structure. It all depends on how well you can answer questions and their scoring rubrics: ACT does not penalize guessing and has optional writing sections, while the SAT penalizes guessing and requires writing sections.

The ACT science section does not test science knowledge but critical reading of science passages, so science knowledge is essentially useless for its section.

The ACT has trigonometry, whereas the SAT lacks it. The ACT, which takes 3 hours and 25 minutes to complete, is shorter in duration than  the SAT, which is 3 hours and 45 minutes on average. Preparation is minimally required if you move from doing the SAT to the ACT.

It is best to take two weeks to cross-study each test and then pick which one best suits you. Some people advise you to take both tests and submit the one whose  score was higher.

SAT vs. ACT FAQs

If you still have questions about the differences of the ACT vs. SAT, we’ve answered some of the most common queries. 

1. I Tend to Play a Lot of Sports in My Senior Year; Should I Wait to Take the SAT or ACT?

No, you shouldn’t wait.  If this is your first attempt, you need to be serious about college and put recreational activities in the back seat if you want to get into college. Ignoring these tests will prompt a lot of stress to work towards an ideal score. 

2. I Tend to Have Test Anxiety/ Am Not a Good Test Taker. What Are My Options?

This is usually due to lack of preparation; you are usually unsure  what to expect before taking a test. Of course, this can cause concentration problems which result in poor performance. You must be well-prepared by practicing test questions and sharpening your skillset, along with knowing what to expect. Do not waste time worrying about your scoring; focus on being  better.

3. Can I Receive Accommodations for the ACT or SAT?

Of course, both the ACT and SAT have certain processes for submitting the necessary documentation, and it can take up to a few weeks to process. There are online resources to help inform you about accommodations for the ACT and SAT.

4. I Am a Freshman in High School. Is There Anything I Can Do to Help Me Get Ready?

It’s never a bad idea to get started early. Become a proficient reader and learn to analyze texts throughout your studying years. 

It is never too early to research good PSAT scores as well so you know where to aim and how to study properly. Also, be sure to check out tutoring services, where we offer sample questions from both tests with explanations to help you understand the material.

5. Should I Guess on the SAT?

Seeing as you are not given an infinite amount of time for the SAT, it is inevitable that you would have to guess on some of the questions. It is perfectly OK to do so; you should always guess on the SAT when you are not sure of the answer and time is tight. This is especially so for questions that takeaway more time to understand than it’s worth. 

There are resources that offer a more in-depth analysis of guessing, and techniques on how to do so to get the best possible score.

6. How Can I Compare the Prices of Both Exams?

This chart will help you understand the differences between the pricings of the SAT and ACT and help you figure out which offers more value with its pricing.

Table outlining the numerosu fees students need to pay to take the ACT and SAT exams

7. How Many Times Can I Retake Each Test?

You can take the ACT up to 12 times in one year and you can take the SAT as many times as you please. It is always ideal to get the highest possible score you can achieve, and no matter the differences between the SAT or ACT, there is always room for improvement on both. 

On your first try, there can be factors as to why you probably did not get the score you wanted: unwellness, test anxiety, blanking out, the list goes on. It is advised to retake these tests up to 3 times only, since statistically, your score may not improve after the third try, and some schools look at your collective test scores, which could bring it down if your scores decreased.

SAT or ACT: Final Thoughts

Whether the SAT or ACT is easier depends on your comfort with each’s content. The bottom line is the SAT may be easier for students who excel in math and want more time to answer questions. If you consider yourself a science buff who loves reading and handles time crunches well, the ACT may be your better option. 

Since most colleges don’t prefer either test, the choice is ultimately yours to make. If you’re still unsure which test is better for you, consider taking SAT and ACT practice tests to see which one you score highest on. 

Whether you choose the SAT or the ACT, ensure you study thoroughly for your best shot at achieving a high score! 

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