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SAT vs. ACT: Which One Should You Take?

SAT vs. ACT: What’s Right for You?

When it comes to college applications, choosing the right standardized exam to take can be critical. Nearly all universities accept either the SAT or ACT and claim not to prefer one exam over the other. So what’s the difference, and which one should you take?

It all depends on your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

Exam Structure and Timing

The SAT and ACT are standardized exams designed to measure your readiness for college-level coursework and proficiency in essential subject areas like math and English. In 2018, more than 2.1 million students took the SAT and 1.9 million took the ACT. 

The SAT and ACT are structured similarly. Both tests take around 3 hours from start to finish, with short breaks in between sections. Both are comprised of reading, grammar/writing, and math sections as well as an optional essay at the end.

Here is a general breakdown comparing the structure of the admissions tests:

52 questions
65 minutes
75 questions
45 minutes
Writing and Language
44 questions
35 minutes
60 questions
60 minutes
(No Calculator)
20 questions
25 minutes
40 questions
35 minutes
Math (With Calculator)
38 questions
55 minutes
40 questions
35 minutes
Essay (Optional)
50 minutes
Essay (Optional)
40 minutes

Students busy with homework

SAT and ACT: Understanding Each Section

We will review each section in detail below.


This section primarily focuses on reading comprehension of various text types. Common questions will ask you to identify the main idea of a text, determine the meaning of a word in context, or select lines from the text that support a claim. You may also be asked to interpret data from a chart, table, or graph associated with a passage.

65 minutes40 minutes
The Reading portion of the SAT consists of 4 passages and 1 dual-passage, which includes two related texts. After each passage/dual-passage, there are 10-11 questions, for a total of 52 questions.

Passages types are on the SAT Reading are typically arranged in the following sequence: fiction/narrative, social sciences, natural science, history, natural science (again). The dual passage appears in either the history or natural science section.
The Reading portion on the ACT includes 3 long prose passages and 1 pair of short prose passages. Each is passage/pair is followed by 10 questions, for a total of 40 questions.

Passage types on the ACT Reading appear in the following order: literary narrative/prose fiction, social sciences, humanities, natural sciences.

Writing and Language/English

This section focuses on grammar, vocabulary, sentence/paragraph structure, and organization. Typical questions will ask you to choose replacements for a particular word, rearrange words and phrases that are out of place, and either add or eliminate punctuation in certain places.

35 minutes45 minutes
The Writing and Language on the SAT consists of 4 passages, each followed by 11 questions for a total of 44 questions. All passages in this section are informative in nature, covering subjects such as natural science, social science, and history. However, they are arranged in no particular sequence.The ACT English consists of 5 passages, each followed by 15 questions for a total of 75 questions. Passage types in this section are similar to those of the Reading section (prose fiction, humanities, natural sciences, etc.) and appear in a random order.


This section focuses on problem solving and graphical analysis, within the scope of high-school level algebra 1/2, geometry/trigonometry, and statistics/probability.

80 minutes60 minutes
SAT Math is split into a non-calculator section and calculator section, taken in that order on test day. A formula sheet of basic math equations is provided for both parts.

The non-calculator section is 25 minutes and consists of 20 questions (15 multiple-choice, 5 grid-in). The calculator section is 35 minutes has 38 questions (30 multiple-choice, 8 grid-in). Questions tend to increase in difficulty as you work through the test - the last few problems are typically the most challenging.
Unlike the SAT, ACT Math simply includes 60 questions all in one section and each multiple-choice question consists of 5 answer choices instead of 4. A calculator is allowed but a formula sheet is not provided. Questions generally appear in order of difficulty.


40 minutes
The Science section is unique to the ACT. 6-7 passages each present a hypothetical scientific experiment and data collection scenario for you to analyze. There are 35 questions in total.

Science on ACT is primarily meant to measure your quantitative reasoning ability rather than general knowledge in subjects like physics, biology, and chemistry. A basic understanding of mathematical relationships and data interpretation should be enough for you to score well on this part of the test.


Both the SAT and ACT offer an optional essay. The nature of the essay prompts between the two exams, however, are very different in nature.

50 minutes40 minutes
In the SAT Essay section, you will first read a short (600-750 word) passage and then respond to a prompt that asking about how the author builds an argument. The essay does not contribute to your score out of 1600 - it’s graded on a separate scale out of 24 total points. The ACT Writing Section presents a set of 3 differing perspectives on an real-world issue; the prompt asks you to evaluate each perspective and write an argumentative essay from your own point of view. The essay does not contribute to your composite score out of 36 - it’s graded on a separate scale out of 12 total points.
Sample Prompt:

Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Bogard’s claims, but rather explain how Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience.
Sample Prompt:

Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.

Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the increasing presence of intelligent machines.

In your essay, be sure to:
• analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
• state and develop your own perspective on the issue
• explain the relationship between your perspective and those given

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.

SAT and ACT Scoring

On both tests, your raw score (based on number of correct answers) is converted to a scaled score, ranging from 1-36 on the ACT and from 400-1600 on the SAT. 

Although most colleges don’t claim to have specific score cutoffs or requirements, you should aim to score 34+ on the ACT or 1500+ on the SAT to be competitive for Ivy League schools and other top universities.

If you’ve taken both an SAT or ACT test, you may be wondering which score is “better.” Although there is no exact formula for equating SAT and ACT test results, we’ve created a conversion table between the two exams to help you interpret your score and decide which test to take or which score to submit to colleges.

Pencil against graph on paper

SAT/ACT Score Conversion Table


2021 Test Dates

The SAT and ACT are administered only on certain dates throughout the year. Below are the official test dates announced so far. 

March 13February 6
May 8April 17
June 5June 12
July 17

Which One is Right For You?

Now that you know all about the SAT and ACT, it’s time to choose which one is right for you. 

Let’s start by considering some major differences between the two exams to determine which better suits your strengths and preferences. 

Are you strong in science?

The ACT includes a science section, which the SAT does not. Although this section is a test of reasoning rather than knowledge and anyone can potentially achieve a high score, students with a strong background in chemistry, biology, or physics may be at a natural advantage. 

How quick and accurate are you?

The ACT allows for less time per question than the SAT does. That said, ACT questions are generally considered easier and more “surface-level” than those of the SAT. So you choice is essentially a decision between prioritizing speed and analysis.

Think about your test-taking habits in school. If you typically breeze through the easy questions and struggle with the few most difficult problems, the ACT may be more suitable for you. If you work slowly but feel like you can answer any question correctly when given enough time, consider the SAT a better option. 

What type of writing are you stronger in?

The SAT essay is an objective literary analysis, whereas the ACT essay essentially asks for your opinion. Ask yourself if you’d rather write an evidence-based expository essay or an opinion-based persuasive essay? Do you consider yourself deeply passionate about issues relating to the social sciences? Or would you prefer to simply analyze the literary text without presenting an opinion on its subject matter. 

Next Steps

Here’s what you can do next:

Still don’t know which test is right for you?

If you want to 100% be confident in your decision, the best method is to take a full-length practice test for both the SAT and ACT.

MEK is hosting test events, both virtually and on-site, all throughout January, February, and March! This comes with our free signature score report. By comparing a detailed performance analysis for both tests, you can confirm your strengths and preferences before making your final choice.

Sign up for your evaluation test today!

Decided on the SAT or ACT, but still need help with prep?

Earn high scores with the guidance of our expert teachers! Sign up today for our SAT or ACT prep classes, which kick off in January.
You can also sign up for Private Test Prep, which offers both on-site and virtual options as well!

In the end, just remember that you can succeed on whichever test you take as long as you develop a solid study plan and put in the effort!

MEK Review

MEK Review is the top learning center in North Jersey, dedicated to helping students of all ages begin an incredible success story. With our guidance, students have gained acceptances into the best schools in the country, earned top test scores, prepared for difficult admission tests, and transformed into their best selves in the classroom. To find your perfect solution, explore our programs or book your free consultation with an expert counselor!


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