What Is the Difference Between ACT and SAT?

The ACT and SAT are common, standardised entrance tests for US universities and colleges. Typically, all international students are required to take either the ACT or SAT before applying to a US college, and the score you submit will form a key part of your application.

Although both the ACT and SAT are designed to assess similar knowledge and skills, there are several differences between the two. This guide explains what the ACT and SAT include, how they are different, and which one you should take when applying to study in the USA.

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What is the ACT?

The ACT is an entrance exam administered by ACT Inc and used by many colleges and universities in the US to make admissions decisions. It is a multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test consisting of four compulsory sections (English, Maths, Reading, and Science) and one optional section (Writing).

What is the SAT?

The SAT is an entrance exam created and administered by the College Board and used by many colleges and universities in the US to make admissions decisions. It is a multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test which includes two main sections: Reading and Writing, and Maths.

ACT vs SAT

There are several differences between the ACT and SAT entrance exams. The key facts about each test are compared in the table below.

ACT SAT
Sections English
Maths
Reading
Science
Writing (optional)
Reading and Writing
Maths
Number of questions 215 154
Length 2 hours and 55 minutes (3 hours and 35 minutes if you’re taking the writing section) 3 hours (3 hours and 15 minutes with breaks)
Scoring Your overall ACT score will be between 1 and 36. This overall score is the average of your four section scores, which are each also on a scale from 1 to 36. If you take the Writing Test, you will receive a separate score for this section. Each section of the SAT is scored on a scale from 200 to 800. Your total SAT score is then calculated by adding these scores together to get an overall score of between 400-1600.
Average score 21 1060
Cost $63 without writing section
$88 with writing section
$60
Test dates Six times per year (February, April, June, July, October, and December). See all ACT test dates. Seven times per year (March, May, June, August, October, November, and December). See all SAT test dates.
Test location ACT exams are taken in-person in a test centre. If you’re applying from the US or Canada, you can use the ACT test centre locator to find a suitable test date and centre local to you. If you are applying from outside the US/Canada, you’ll need to register for a free MyACT account using your school’s unique code. Find out more about how to do this on the ACT non-US student page. SAT exams are taken in-person in a test centre. You can use the SAT test centre search tool to find a suitable test date and centre local to you.
How to register You’ll need to register for the ACT via the ACT website. There are multiple ACT dates you can register for throughout the year. Each test date has its own deadline, for example if you want to sit the ACT on 10th-11th June, you need to register by 13th May. You’ll need to register for the SAT via the College Board website. There are multiple SAT dates you can register for and each has its own deadline. For example if you want to take the SAT on 1st October, you will need to register by 2nd September.

What is a good SAT score?

An outstanding score in the SAT is a great way to help your application stand out and maximise your chances of an offer. What is considered a ‘good’ SAT score differs depending on the universities and courses that you are applying for. For example, average SAT scores for MIT range from around 1,510 to 1,580 overall (730-780 in reading and writing and 780-800 in Maths), while typical scores for UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) are around 1405 overall.

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What is a good ACT score?

An outstanding ACT score can be the difference between receiving an offer from a top university or not. It’s therefore really important to prepare for the ACT in advance and aim for the best score possible.

The average composite ACT score, based on the scores of 5 million students who took the ACT and graduated in the last three years, is 20.7. However, the most competitive universities in the US will be looking for an ACT score far higher than the average. For example, the average composite score of successful MIT applicants is 34-36, while the average score of successful applicants to Princeton, Harvard and Columbia is 33-35.

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How important is the SAT/ACT?

The SAT/ACT is an important part of your US college application. It is a standardised test which means it provides colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare applicants from across the world and from different educational backgrounds.

How important SAT/ACT scores are in the application process varies from college to college. It will always be considered alongside other aspects of your application, including your qualifications, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, personal essays, and admissions interviews (if required). For particularly competitive universities/colleges, a high SAT/ACT score is crucial in order to give your application a good chance of success.

Should you take the SAT or ACT?

Unless specified by the university, you are usually free to take either test, however it’s important to think about which best fits with your application. For example, if you’re applying to study a science-based degree like Engineering or Medicine, it is best to do the ACT to showcase your scientific knowledge.

Some universities do specify either the SAT or ACT, so it’s important to check with their international admissions office directly to double check before registering. An increasing number of college applicants are taking both the SAT and the ACT to give themselves the highest chance of a competitive score and the most options when it comes to college choices.

FAQs

How long is my SAT/ACT score valid?

Your SAT and ACT scores are valid for five years from the date you took the test/s. Therefore, if you don’t get into your chosen university the first time around, you could use the same test for another application in the following year, or for another university. You can also resit the ACT/SAT multiple times (up to 12 times for the ACT) if you are not happy with your score.

When is the deadline for registering for the ACT/SAT?

In general, the registration deadlines for the ACT and the SAT are around five weeks before the testing date. However, always check on the respective websites for the specific deadlines. For example if you want to take the SAT on 1st October, you will need to register by 2nd September, or if you want to sit the ACT on 10th-11th June, you need to register by 13th May.

What does SAT and ACT stand for?

The SAT and ACT are standardised entrance exams used by colleges and universities in the US. The SAT stands for ‘Scholastic Assessment Test’ and the ACT stands for ‘American College Test’.

Can I take both SAT and ACT?

Although you are unlikely to need both scores to apply for US colleges, you can take both the SAT and ACT exams. Many applicants choose to take both tests in order to give themselves the highest chance of a competitive score and the most options when it comes to college choices.