A complete guide to helping your students decide

ACT High School SAT Teachers Test Prep

SAT or ACT? Whether you live in a state that requires all students to take the ACT or SAT, or one that leaves it up to students, you’ll likely encounter the question “Which test should I take?”

As an educator, preparing for this question requires time, experience, and familiarity with students’ strengths.  But you don’t have to answer it alone. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you and your students answer that question without having to take two full length practice tests first! 

SAT v ACT Magoosh

ACT vs SAT: How I’ve Helped My Students Decide

When I did one-on-one ACT and SAT tutoring, one of my favorite games to play was “Are you an SAT student or an ACT student?” (Well, I played this game in my head anyway.) I asked students about their interests in school (literature, science, math) and outside of school (sports, dance, video games). I asked them about how they did in school and how they felt about standardized tests. I asked them about their strengths and weaknesses and their biggest worries about the college admissions process.

By the end of this initial conversation, I could usually determine with greater than 90% accuracy which test they would do better on. And this is without looking at any diagnostic test scores.  Should you have the same degree of familiarity with your students, you may also be able to make this determination.  

Of course, I looked at the scores too. If my students had PSAT scores, PreACT scores, or practice test scores, this often made the decision a lot more concrete.

But my point is: I could often make a really, really good guess just by sizing up who my students were as people. But this only came after years of experience helping high schoolers prep for the SAT and ACT.

However, if you’re working with a school or classroom full of students trying to decide whether they should take the SAT or the ACT, you might not have the time to go through everything with each student.

That’s why we’ve compiled all of our best information here on the differences and similarities between the ACT and the SAT.  Read on for more tips you can share with your students!

ACT vs SAT infographic-magoosh

Click the thumbnail to view our handy infographic comparing the ACT and SAT!

ACT vs SAT: Timing

The ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete without the essay, and 3 hours and 35 minutes with the essay.

The SAT takes 3 hours to complete without the essay, and 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay.

Here’s the full breakdown for each section:

Section ACT SAT
English (ACT); Writing and Language (SAT) 45 minutes
75 questions
35 minutes
44 questions
Math 60 minutes
60 questions
80 minutes
58 questions
Reading 35 minutes
40 questions
65 minutes
52 questions
Science 35 minutes
40 questions
Essay (optional) 40 minutes
1 essay
50 minutes
1 essay

Of course, this does not include time for filling out paperwork, instructions, or breaks. All in all, students will should plan on spending at least 4 to 5 hours in the testing center.  If they need more information on logisitcs and day-of planning, they can check out our breakdowns for SAT Test Day and ACT Test Day which have lots more detail.

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ACT vs SAT: Time Per Question

It’s also important to note that one of the major challenges of the ACT is how time based it is. The vast majority of students struggle to finish at least one of the ACT sections, and many struggle to finish several of the sections within the time limit. Of course, plenty of students run out of time on the SAT as well; in fact, many students and tutors have reported that the new SAT is much more difficult to finish on time than the old SAT. So it may be possible that this oft-noted distinction between the (old) SAT and the ACT is no longer as valid, so we’ll continue monitoring this trend as more students take the test.

That being said, students will still have less time per question on every section of the ACT than they will on the SAT:

  • ACT time per question = 50 seconds
  • SAT time per question = 70 seconds

Keep in mind though that the questions are different on each test. SAT questions may take longer to parse than ACT questions, so students may need the extra time provided by the SAT anyway.

ACT vs SAT: Overall Structure and Breakdown by Section

The ACT has 4 multiple choice sections plus an optional essay. The sections always appear in this order:

ACT vs SAT section order on the ACT test-magoosh

The SAT has 4 multiple choice sections plus an optional essay.

ACT vs SAT section order on the SAT test-magoosh

ACT English vs SAT Writing

When you take a peek at the English section on the ACT and the Writing & Language section on the SAT, you’ll find that they look virtually identical. Not only that, they test many of the same concepts (although we do feel these concepts are tested in a bit more of a nuanced fashion on the SAT than the ACT, with tricker answer choice phrasing).

Still, here are a couple differences you should be aware of:

  • Reading Level: All of the passages on the ACT English section are at a relatively easy reading level (say, about 9th grade). The passages on the SAT Writing & Language section can vary in difficulty, however, from early high school to early college.  
  • Informational Graphic Questions: On the ACT, all of the questions are about the text. On the SAT, some of the questions center around tables and graphs connected to the text.

Check out our video on the differences between ACT English and SAT Writing for more details!

ACT Math vs SAT Math

ACT vs SAT Math Section

Here’s what your students should know about the similarities and differences between ACT Math and SAT Math:

  • Math Level: The new SAT has upped its game as far as math difficulty goes: some questions require advanced math and trigonometry. However, as our SAT expert Chris Lele reported after taking the SAT in May, at least right now, the ACT includes more questions in the realm of Algebra II and Trigonometry. That doesn’t mean your students should panic if they haven’t studied trig! All of the trig knowledge tested on either the SAT or ACT is at a very basic level. In fact, I’m fairly confident students could teach themselves what they need to know with our trig study guide for the new SAT and trig resources for the ACT (and for video lessons, go to Magoosh SAT or Magoosh ACT).
  • Calculator Usage: This one’s pretty important to most students. On the ACT math section, test takers can use a calculator on every single question. But as you may have noticed above, the SAT includes a 25 minute no-calculator section with 20 questions. The math here is meant to be easy enough to do by hand, but students may want to be brush up on their mental math skills, especially considering the time constraints. Students who can eyeball math problems and do calculations mentally might be at an advantage on the SAT over their peers.
  • Multiple Choice vs Grid-ins: The ACT Math test is all multiple choice, meaning students will always be able to have at least a 20% chance of getting the answer right if all else fails. The SAT Math test is 80% multiple choice and 20% grid-ins, meaning they have to fill in the blanks with their own answers.
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ACT Reading vs SAT Reading

Students will also find that the ACT Reading and SAT Reading sections look pretty similar, at least on the surface. But there are some important differences to observe as well:

  • Number of passages: There are four long passages (700-900ish words) to read on the ACT and five longish passages (500 to 750 words) on the SAT. Or rather, there are 4 discrete reading sections on the ACT and 5 on the SAT. Both tests include one set of paired passages to compare, but count as a single passage. 
  • Passage complexity: The reading level of the passages on the ACT is pretty standard across the board (about a 10th to 11th grade level). On the SAT,  the range extends from 9th grade to early college.

There are some further differences in question types between the SAT and ACT, including the SAT’s use of a special question type the College Board calls Command of Evidence. We have further articles breaking down the differences on our blog that you can check out.


ACT Science vs SAT…

ACT-Science vs SAT-magoosh
Well, it’s tricky to compare apples to…nothing. The Science section is unique to the ACT; there’s nothing like it on the SAT, or really on any other standardized test I know of, other than those developed by the ACT organization.

Before you jump to conclusions about whether or not a student is particularly good at science (and therefore whether this means they should take or avoid the ACT),  it’s important to know that there is very little actual science knowledge tested on the ACT Science section. Kind of bizarre, right? A handful of questions do require students to bring in outside knowledge, but most of the questions have to do with the ability to read tables and graphs, make assumptions about scientific situations, or evaluate scientific hypotheses. I suggest students take a look at our ACT Science lessons or the example ACT Science questions on the ACT website before making any decisions about how comfortable they will be with this section.

Although the SAT doesn’t have a discrete Science section; it’s worth noting that the new SAT places a much greater emphasis on interpreting tables and graphs across all of the sections. Think of it as the SAT’s response to the ACT Science test. Being able to interpret data will help students on both tests.

Here’s a complete guide to tackling the many graphs and tables questions on the ACT Science Test.

ACT Essay vs SAT Essay

Even though the ACT and the SAT are looking a lot more similar these days, one point of pretty significant departure is the optional essay (optional assuming the colleges students are applying to don’t require the essay).

On the ACT essay, students are given three different perspectives on a debatable issue and asked to evaluate them and present their own perspective. For students who excel at debate and/or coming up with supporting examples on the spot, the ACT essay may be a natural fit.

On the SAT essay, students read a 650-700 word passage before writing an essay explaining how the author builds his or her argument in the passage. The key difference here is that the SAT doesn’t care at all about personal opinions or arguments; it just wants students to evaluate the passage. Students who excel at analyzing readings in English class may find the SAT essay to be a better fit.

ACT vs SAT Scores

ACT: The ACT uses what’s called a composite score to give students an overall ACT score. Overall composite score ranges from 1 to 36 and is an average of scores on each of the multiple choice sections. Students also receive individual section scores, which range from 1 to 36 as well.  That being said, for most colleges, it’s the composite score that counts.

For example, let’s say a student receives a 25 on English, 32 on Math, 28 on Reading, and 24 on Science. His/her overall composite score would be (25+32+28+25)/4 = 27.5, rounded to the nearest whole number, which would be 28. (It’s icing on the cake when you get to benefit from the rounding up!)

SAT: The SAT is scored on a range between 400 and 1600. This is based on adding the Reading/Writing score (from 200-800) and Math score (from 200-800.) Note that even though there are three main multiple choice sections to the SAT—Reading, Writing, and Math—Reading and Writing are combined into one score out of 800. This is different from the old SAT, on which students received a score out of 800 on each of the three sections, meaning the highest score on the old SAT was 2400.

ACT vs SAT Conversion of Scores

If you have students that have taken the ACT already, and want to see whether they should take the SAT too, we’ve made a chart that will allow them to easily convert your ACT scores to new SAT scores or old SAT scores. This can be really helpful for students who aren’t thrilled with their ACT score, but aren’t sure yet if the SAT is a better bet.

SAT vs ACT: Test Dates

Both the SAT and ACT are offered 7 times per year.  While they are usually switch so that one is each month, there are not test dates for either in January, and both tests are offered in June, October, and December.

Here’s a handy chart to keep it straight:

Jan No No
Feb Yes No
Mar No Yes
Apr Yes No
May No Yes
Jun Yes Yes
Jul Yes No
Aug No Yes
Sep Yes No
Oct Yes Yes
Nov No Yes
Dec Yes Yes


In some months, students can take the SAT and ACT on consecutive weekends, and while some do, it’s not always wise. Back-to-back weekends in the test center? Studying for two different tests at the same time? Yikes. In an ideal world, you’re just going to choose one or the other test to prep for (hey, that’s the whole point of this post!), but if you DO decide you want to take both, it’s best if you can give yourself at least a month (and ideally more) in between to switch gears. However, with the increased similarities between the ACT and the new SAT, you might find that you can get away with back-to-back tests if this fits best with your schedule. But again, I don’t think that’s the ideal scenario.

ACT vs SAT Cost Comparison

This chart compares the general cost (and the hidden fees) of both exams:

Test without essay $39.50 $43.00
Test with essay $56.50 $54.50
Additional Fees    
Late registration $25.00 $28.00
Standby/waitlist testing $49.00 $46.00
International testing (outside U.S. or Canada) $40.00 $35-$49
Test date or center change $24.00 $28.00
Additional score reports $12.00 each $11.25 each


Students who can’t afford the ACT or SAT can work with their high schools to obtain a fee waiver, which will allow them to take the test for free (with or without the essay), although fee waivers generally don’t cover additional fees beyond that.

SAT vs ACT: Which is easier? Which is harder?

We know that these are questions that students would love a straightforward answer to, but really it’s going to depend on an individual’s sense of difficulty.

That being said, here are a few guidelines:

The ACT might be easier for: 

  • Students who are really finish their work quickly. Students who generally don’t have trouble running out of time on tests at school and are fast readers will likely do well with ACT pacing. The ACT, in many ways, is still a more straightforward test, provided you can finish it in time.
  • Students who like science and are good at interpreting data and trends. While students don’t need to know much science to do well on the ACT Science section, it doesn’t hurt to be interested in what they are reading. Students who may not be a fan of science, but are really good at seeing the trends in graphs and tables and being able to deduce the next step in a process are also likely to be successful at ACT Science.
  • Students who rely heavily on a calculator in math class. The prospect of the no-calculator section and the grid-ins on the SAT might be a bit more intimidating than the ACT option. 

The SAT might be easier for: 

  • Students who may not be the fastest readers, but have strong comprehension skills. While these students may not be able to take all the time they’d like on the SAT, they will benefit from the more complex passages on the SAT vs the ACT. This, combined with the slightly shorter passages on the SAT and the slightly longer time period to answer questions on the SAT could make the SAT a better choice. 
  • Students who are good at mental math. They’ll be able to breeze through the no-calculator section with confidence while other students sweat. 
  • Students who are good at reading between the lines and finding traps. The SAT, while not as tricky as it was in the past, still has some tricks up its sleeve. And the better a student is at standardized test games, the better he/she will score on the SAT.

Should students take both the ACT and the SAT?

Generally speaking, we recommend against taking both the SAT and the ACT.  Between splitting test prep efforts between the two, and spending an extra Saturday morning in a testing center, students risk sacrificing other important activies like extracurriculars, school work, and family/friend time.

For most students, there is little benefit to taking the ACT and the SAT.  Both are accepted by all U.S. colleges. Both the include core sections on Reading, Writing, and Math. Both tests include an optional essay, and neither penalizes for wrong answers. Both are taken by millions of students, and there is no longer the geographical divide there once was between test-takers on the coasts (mostly SAT) and test-takers in the middle of the country (mostly ACT). All said, taking both tests is rarely a good option for students.

Here are a couple exceptions:

  1. Students who are REALLY strong test-takers, eyeing the most competitive schools, and feeling pretty confident they can get a top score on both tests. Some top schools (aka a few of the Ivy Leagues) have indicated that they like to see both scores. It gives them more data to have confidence that a student is strong across the board. That being said, taking both is NOT required. If a student needs to focus on studying full-force to get a top score on one test, that’s where their efforts should go.
  2. Students who have started testing early and have decided to change tactics. Whether it’s hitting a wall with ACT scores, or just wanting to try the SAT for a change of pace.  Students who do this should make sure they have plenty of time to focus on one specific test at a time. For example, a student who takes the ACT in February should schedule their SAT test date in May, giving him/her three solid months in between to switch gears. 

What about what students are saying about ACT vs SAT on College Confidential, Yahoo Answers, Quora, etc.?

There’s so much advice out there on the internet on ACT vs SAT, and so much of it is not good for students. A particular concern right now is outdated information about the SAT. The SAT changed drastically in early 2016, so anything written before that point that hasn’t been updated is not going to help students at all.

At Magoosh, we often check out what students are saying on College Confidential and Yahoo after each administration of the SAT or ACT (there’s usually a thread on College Confidential about each test with hundreds of comments). What always stands out is that students have such different (and opposite) reactions to the same test. For every student who says, “The Reading section was so hard!” there’s a student who says, “The Reading section was so easy!” Students who focus on these forums will likely come out them more confused than before. Direct them to good authoritative sources on the SAT and ACT that you trust and follow their guidelines.

Need more help deciding if your student should take the ACT or the SAT? Let us know in the comments!

ACT VS SAT-magoosh


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