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
April 26, 2024
7 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

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 the SAT? Which test is easier: the SAT or the ACT? Which exam should you take? Do colleges prefer one over the other?

In this article, we will discuss the various topics covered in each exam and help you determine which is easier, the SAT or the ACT. This article will help you identify 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 between each test and each section, and how you handle pressure and your studying style help you determine which test is a better fit.

Differences between the ACT and SAT

The ACT is considered to be more challenging because it assesses specific knowledge, including vocabulary, and has a shorter time limit to complete questions. The SAT is considered to be less challenging due to the fact that it tests analytical and problem-solving skills, does not include specific terminology, and provides 43% more time per question. 

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 of academic achievement and preparation.

Here is a more detailed look at the differences between the SAT vs the ACT: 

Sections Reading
Writing & Language
Math (No Calculator & Calculator)
Essay (optional)
Length 3 hours 2 hours 55 minutes (no essay)
3 hours 40 minutes (with essay)
Scoring 400-1600 scale 1-36 scale
Questions 154 questions 215 questions
1 optional essay
Math Heart of Algebra
Problem Solving & Data Analysis
Passport to Advanced Math
Additional Topics in Math
Number and Quantity
Statistics and Probability
Integrating Essential Skills
Science N/A Biology
Earth/Space Sciences
Reading 5 passages 4 passages
Calculator Policy For some questions, you will not be permitted to use a calculator. Calculators are allowed for all math questions.

Note that 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 it up with a convincing argument.

How Is the ACT and SAT Scored?

Here are the differences between how the ACT is scored versus the SAT: 

  • The ACT is scored by converting your raw score to a scale score, from which your composite score is calculated. Your ACT composite score is equal to the average of your four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number.
  • The SAT is scored by converting your raw score on each of the two SAT sections to scaled scores. Your total score is the sum of the two sections. 

Take a closer look at how the SAT/ACT scores are calculated: 

Scoring Step SAT ACT
Step 1 - Calculating Raw Scores The number of correctly-answered questions on each section is counted The number of correctly-answered questions on each section is counted
Step 2 - Converting to Scaled Scores Raw scores are converted to a scaled score between 200-800 for each section Raw scores are converted to a scaled score between 1-36 for each section
Step 3 - Calculating Composite Scores Total score is the sum of both sections Total score is the average of all four sections

Being aware of the scoring processes will help you if you want to know how to convert your SAT score to an ACT score or vice versa. 


The SAT gives 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 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:


  • Deficient
  • Imprecise
  • Sparse
  • Negligible
  • Muted


  • Irrefutable
  • Succinct
  • Edifying
  • Mundane
  • Obtrusive


  • Bucolic
  • Diaphanous
  • Perfidy
  • Lassitude
  • Supercilious

While the ACT does not have questions about vocabulary directly, it tests 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 in which it is used 
  3. Decide which word best fits 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. 

Considering this, 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. 


The Math section of the SAT is divided into two subsections: a no-calculator-allowed section and a calculator-allowed section. The test 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. This means your SAT prep will need to involve math practice without a calculator, which the ACT does not require! The SAT math questions are categorized into four sections:

  • Heart of Algebra (19 questions): linear equations and inequalities (alone or systems) and graphs.
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis (17 questions): ratios, proportional relationships, percentages, scatterplots and models, statistics, probability, and measurements
  • Passport to Advanced Math (16 questions): quadratic and exponential functions, polynomial expressions, nonlinear expressions, function notations, and more.
  • Additional Topics in Math (6 questions): radian measures, working with complex numbers, geometry, and trigonometry. 

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:

  • Number and Quantity (7-10%): real and complex numbers, integers and rational exponents, vectors, and matrices.
  • Algebra (12–15%): linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential equations.
  • Functions (12-15%): linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions.
  • Geometry (12-15%): shapes and solids, trigonometric ratios, and equations of conic sections.
  • Statistics and Probability (8-12%): spread of distributions, data collection methods, and calculating probabilities.
  • Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%): rates/percentages, proportions, area and volume, mean and median, and equivalent expressions; also includes problems that combine the Preparing for Higher Math subcategories


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 the area of the passage that 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 then 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 an 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 previous questions and require you to cite specific lines and paragraphs as evidence for your answer. 

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 which test is easier in this instance, you would favor 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 is ideal for the ACT, whereas skills such as information picking and critical reasoning are ideal for the SAT.


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 optional for the ACT and has been discontinued for the SAT, unless your state requires it as part of SAT School Day administrations.

The SAT and ACT essays each have unique challenges, going through a yearly redesign that changed both the structure of each writing section as well 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: 

  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: 

  • Create arguments that accurately target the main conflict or problem presented in the prompt 
  • Establish your own point of view
  • Put the argument in conversation with the given standpoints

Becoming familiar with the ACT grading rubric will help you determine how best to use the 40-minute time limit. The rubric awards more points for 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: 

  • Analyze and incorporate all points of view in the beginning or end of your article
  • Clearly state and affirm your own point of view on the issue 
  • Explain your examples in detail, using reasoning to support your perspective
  • Ensure your essay has a logical flow and is easy to read 
  • Try your best to not include errors (grammar, usage, etc.)

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

The SAT Essay

If you are required to complete the SAT essay, know that it is known to be lengthy and challenging!

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 adhere 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 is also 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. 


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. The test can be broken down as follows:

Section # of Questions Time Allocated
Reading 52 65 minutes
Writing and Language 44 35 minutes
Math 58 80 minutes
Total 154 180 minutes

If your state requires the SAT essay as part of SAT School Day administrations, you can expect the test to last an additional 50 minutes. 

The ACT takes three hours to complete, with 30-minute breaks in between. It is sectioned as such: 

Section # of Questions Time Allocated
English 75 45 minutes
Math 60 60 minutes
Reading 40 35 minutes
Science 40 35 minutes
Writing Component 1 40 minutes
Total 215 175 minutes (plus 40 for essay)

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 to see 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 of the content so you can 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. 

Many colleges nowadays are implementing test-optional policies after the pandemic, so your SAT or ACT score may not even be required at your college of choice. Make sure you look into specific requirements for your target schools. 

However, if you do need to submit test scores, make sure to research the specific process of submitting your scores to colleges so that you’re familiar with when and how colleges want to receive them. 

How to Choose Between the SAT and ACT 

After reading this article, you should 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.

The ACT science section does not test science knowledge but rather critical reading of science passages, so science knowledge is essentially useless for this section.  The ACT has trigonometry, whereas the SAT lacks it. 

The SAT offers more time to complete each question, which can lead to a higher score, but it also has more abstract questions that take longer to work through. 

Overall, 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 is higher. 


If you still have questions about the differences between 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 cause 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 a lack of preparation; you are usually unsure of 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 score; 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 our 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 will 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 true for questions that take more time to understand than they're 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 pricing of the SAT and ACT and help you figure out which offers more value with its pricing.

Type of Fee SAT Cost ACT Cost
Registration Fee $60 $68 ($93 with essay)
Late Fee $30 $38
Change Fee $25 $44
Additional Score Reports $14 $18.50

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.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Thanks ! You're now subscribed!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get A Free Consultation

Speak to a college admissions expert about how we can help you get into your dream school
Schedule a Call

You May Also Like

Before you go, here are a few facts about us!
The Quad Factor: Working with us can increase your chances of admission by 11x!

The Best of the Best: Our team comprises of only 99th percentile tutors and admissions counselors from top-ranking universities, meaning you work with only the most experienced, talented experts.

The Free Consultation: Our experts would love to get to know you, your background, goals, and needs. From there, they match you with a best-fit consultant who will create a detailed project plan and application strategy focused on your success.