SAT and ACT- How Do They Differ?

These are entrance tests for admission into US colleges. SAT first stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test and later stood for Scholastic Assessment Test. Now it does not stand for any abbreviation. ACT stands for American College Testing. Initially, both the tests differed only on the location of the test administration. People in the Midwest US, took up the ACT and people in the northeast, east and west coast of US took up the SAT. But today both tests are accepted by most of the colleges. Every student who wants to study in a college has to decide on the test to take. This is major decision a student has to take. First we shall briefly describe both the tests. Later, we shall compare the two tests.


The College Board has contracted Educational Testing Services (ETS) to administer this test. This test consists of 3 sections – Math, Critical Reading and Writing. Essay writing is included in the Writing section and is compulsory. There are sub-sections in each of the sections. The duration of the test is 3 hours and 45 minutes. The total score of the test is 2400, with each section’s maximum score as 800. Most of the questions asked are multiple-choice questions. The answers are first given a raw score and then the raw scores are converted to a scaled score. A correct answer gets 1 point. There is negative marking in the test for the multiple-choice questions. For every wrong answer a quarter of a point is reduced.


The test has 4 sections – English, Reading, Math and Science. Essay writing is optional. The total duration of the test is 2 hours 55 minutes. Individual section scores are given in the range of 1 to 36. The total score is the average of the 4 sections which also falls in the range of 1 to 36. Since the essay writing is optional, the score is also given separately. Some colleges require the essay score for their admission process.

Comparison between SAT & ACT

Criteria SAT ACT
Question type Complicated and a little difficult to understand Straight forward and easier to understand
Multiple-choice questions + other question types Only multiple-choice questions
Vocabulary More emphasis Less emphasis
Science section Not present Gives importance
Math section No trigonometry Trigonometry questions are asked
Negative marking Yes No
Writing section – Essay writing Compulsory Not compulsory
Difficulty level Difficult due to the complicated questions Difficult due to the time allotted for the different sections

Though both the tests are for college admission, they test different skills in a student. It is not possible to say which of the two is a better test or an easier test. It is purely a personal choice based on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Both the tests have their own positive and negative points. One has to decide based on his/her strengths and weaknesses. If you are good at science then ACT is better and if you do not like science or you are not good at the subject, then SAT is a better test.

If you are good at writing, then SAT is better and your overall score will increase because of the good writing score. It is generally believed that ACT tests more from your curriculum whereas SAT tests more of your understanding and your subject aptitude. Some of the companies that offer test preparation courses also offer diagnostic tests. Based on these test scores, the companies will advise on the test that is better suited for your aptitude.