Ultimate Guide to the SAT and ACT

Feb 22, 2019 | By Maryalene LaPonsie

close-up of pencil filling in bubble on test sheet

Get your pencils ready. More than three out of four colleges say standardized test scores are an important part of their admissions process, according to Peterson's, publisher of college guides.

For most schools, those scores come from one of the following two tests: the SAT or the ACT. While the SAT is older, more students take the ACT each year. That may be because at least 18 states require all public high school students to take the ACT.

Most colleges and universities accept scores from either test, so that means it's up to students to decide which one to take — or even both.

Keep reading for all the details, like test costs, available prep resources, and study tips, to help you determine whether the ACT or SAT is right for you.

What is the SAT?

Taken by students since 1926 and once more commonly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT is administered by the College Board and contains four components:

  • Reading test
  • Writing and language test
  • Math test
  • SAT essay (optional)

The SAT has traditionally been considered a more rigorous test and the one preferred by elite schools. However, with so many colleges accepting the ACT as of 2017, the SAT has seen its test-taking numbers decline.

According to the College Board, the SAT is designed to measure knowledge learned in high school and evaluate what students need to succeed in college. Rather than test how well students memorize facts and vocabulary, the new SAT focuses on analysis, critical thinking and problems with real-world applications.

In order to address concerns with the test, the SAT was revamped in 2016. The scoring scale was changed, penalties for incorrect answers were eliminated and the required essay became optional. However, note that while the essay became optional for test-takers, some institutions still require it for admissions. It's best to check with the admissions department of the schools you want to attend before taking the test and asking about their specific testing requirements, just to be sure.

What is the ACT?

This second college admissions standardized test was created in 1959 at the University of Iowa. Professor Everett Franklin Lindquist was reportedly unhappy with the SAT, so he developed his own American College Testing program. Today, the ACT is a test of the following areas:

  • English
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Math
  • Writing (optional)

In years past, the ACT gained a reputation as being an easier test for some students to succeed at, although whether that is true or not is difficult to prove. It is scored on a different scale than the SAT and has slightly different content areas.

The ACT is a curriculum-based test designed to reflect knowledge students have gained in high school. It asks test-takers to find the best answer in its English, reading and science sections, while the math portion needs students to provide the correct answer. The science section is not as concerned with specific knowledge as with a student's critical thinking skills.

As with the SAT, the essay is optional on the ACT. However, some schools might require it for admittance, so be sure to check with schools you are applying to.

What is the difference between the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and ACT have similar objectives. Both aim to help colleges and universities make informed admissions decisions by measuring a student's knowledge and skills. Some students choose to take both tests, while others limit themselves to just one. The following chart highlights the differences between the two examinations:



Scoring Scale





Writing and language







Optional, scored separately

50 minutes to read a passage and analyze its argument.

Optional, scored separately

40 minutes to read a prompt and respond with a personal perspective. Scoring is not based on the personal perspective but how well the essay is organized and developed.


3 hours, 50 minutes

(Includes essay but not breaks)


65 minutes

Writing and language

35 minutes

80 minutes


50 minutes

3 hours, 35 minutes

(Includes essay but not breaks)

35 minutes

45 minutes

60 minutes

35 minutes

Writing (Essay)

40 minutes

Calculator Policy

Certain calculators allowed for one portion of the math test.

Most 4-function, scientific and graphic calculators allowed so long as they do not have built-in or downloaded computer algebra system functionality.


$46 without essay

$60 with essay

$46 without essay

$62.50 with essay

Incorrect Answer Penalty



How to Prepare for Your Test

When it comes to getting the highest score possible, the SAT says the best way to prepare is to take challenging classes in school, complete homework and ask plenty of questions. While that's all good advice, students can do more to improve their ability to earn a good score.

First, students should review the test content. Both the SAT and the ACT provide sample questions on their websites along with detailed information about the contents of each section. Next, students should look for other resources to help them prepare. While various prep centers offer courses for purchase, don't overlook free options.

Everyone studies differently, but these tips can be used by everyone to maximize their SAT or ACT score:

  • Understand the type of test questions. You'll find several different types of questions on the test, particularly the SAT. Both test websites include detailed information about what to expect and how answers are scored.
  • Practice sample questions. One of the best ways to prepare for the ACT and SAT is to complete sample questions. You can find them on the ACT and SAT websites as well as elsewhere on the web. If you consistently get certain questions wrong, you'll know to study the subject of those questions in more depth before your test day.
  • Be consistent. Cramming the night before can do more harm than good, leaving you exhausted for the test the next day. Make a point to spend time each day over a long span of time — even if it's only 15 minutes on practice questions or watching video tutorials — rather than cramming at the last minute to get the most benefit.

SAT Test Prep Resources

  • SAT Study Guide for Students - The College Board offers a comprehensive study guide on its website that covers everything students need to know about how the test is administered and what knowledge is needed to score well.
  • SAT Practice on Khan Academy - Khan Academy offers free video lessons and a personalized study plan for the SAT. Students who completed 20 hours on Khan Academy saw their scores increase an average of 115 points from the PSAT/NMSQT to the SAT, according to the College Board.

ACT Test Prep Resources

  • Preparing for the ACT Test Study Guide - This free guide from ACT is 64 pages long and includes detailed information on the test sections, sample problems and test-taking tips.
  • Method Test Prep Free Resources - While Method Test Prep offers courses and products that can be purchased, it also has a number of free resources, including an ebook, a self-paced demo and several quick guides.

When and Where to Take the SAT and ACT

Both the SAT and ACT are offered on seven different test days per year for U.S. students. Typically, you need to register about a month in advance of the test or pay a late registration fee. Late registrations close roughly two weeks before the test date. Check the SAT and ACT websites for exact deadlines, since these can vary from year to year.

Testing is often held at high schools and colleges. Many states have dozens of sites available for each testing date, making it convenient to find a nearby location.

Registrations can be submitted online or through the mail. When registering online, students should plan to spend at least 30-40 minutes on the process. In addition to collecting your demographic information, the registration process allows students to enter information about high school coursework and interests. This information is used to help colleges and scholarships find students that meet their criteria. Both the SAT and ACT also require the submission of a photo for identity verification purposes on test day.

Both tests cost $46 for the base test without the writing or essay portion. With the essay, the SAT costs $60, and the ACT price is $62.50. Payment is made at the time of registration.

Test Day: What to Bring and What to Expect

You'll want to double-check for changes on the SAT or ACT website prior to your test date, but as a general rule, gather the following items to take with you:

  • Printed admission ticket
  • Acceptable photo identification
  • Sharpened number two pencils
  • Approved calculator

That's it! If you need medications, food for a medical condition or other accommodations, be sure to request those in advance.

You can bring a watch to time yourself, but if it has an alarm and goes off during the test, you could be dismissed and your test won't be scored. The ACT doesn't allow food or drinks, but the SAT says you can bring snacks for your break. Eating or drinking during the test is not allowed.

These items are also not allowed in the testing area for either the SAT or ACT:

  • Digital devices other than a permitted calculator
  • Cameras
  • Audio players/recorders
  • Highlighters, colored pencils or correction fluid
  • Reading material
  • Tobacco products

A complete list of prohibited items is available on each test's website.

On the day of your test, check the SAT or ACT website for any changes due to inclement weather. Times should be listed on your admission ticket, but doors generally open for both tests at 7:45 a.m. and close at 8:00 a.m. The SAT begins between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., while the ACT says it may start as soon as examinees are checked and seated.

During the ACT, there is a break after the first two tests and before the optional writing portion. The SAT gives students one 10-minute break and one five-minute break during the test. Don't be tempted to check your phone during those times! Using digital devices, including a phone, could get you dismissed from the testing site.

What Happens After the Test

Scores are generally available online about two weeks after the testing date. In some cases, the score for the essay portion of the test may be released after the other test scores.

When you register for your test, you should be able to select up to four schools to send your scores for free. If you didn't make this selection prior to your test day, the SAT gives you nine days after the test to select these schools. After this period, there may be a fee to send your test scores. The ACT also allows students to send scores after testing day for a fee. Most requests are processed within a week, but an expedited service may be available for an additional cost.

If you aren't happy with your scores, you can always retake the test on a future date. (In fact, as of 2020, ACT test takers should be able to retake individual sections rather than having to redo the entire test each time.) Many students of either exam end up taking the test two or more times, so don't feel bad about deciding to try again.

Once schools receive your scores and other admissions information, they decide whether to accept you as a student. Review the school information, as well as any financial aid packages, and notify the institutions of your decision.

Congratulations! You are now college-bound! Start planning next steps, and browse what you should know when it comes to financial aid resources.

Article Sources
Article Sources
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