ACT vs. SAT for College Admissions: What to Take in 2020?

What are the key differences between the ACT and SAT? Which one is better to ensure receiving acceptance letters from college? 

In fact, both the ACT and SAT are standardized college entrance exams.

Still, each has a unique testing style and nuances in structure, format, and timing. Depending on whether math is your soft spot or you are no less an essay writing guru as professionals from, you should choose between ACT and SAT.

Generally, US colleges accept both exams results, which makes them equally popular with only slightly varying levels of state preference

Each test appeals to different types of students. So, let’s focus on the main distinctions and explain what role they can play for you to choose between the SAT and ACT in 2020 easier.

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Do you hate time pressure? Then better opt for the SAT rather than the ACT as it gives more time for each question. The table below offers a short look at the timing of both tests:


(sec per question)


(sec per question)

Reading 53 75
English (ACT) / Writing (SAT) 36 48
Math 60 With a calculator: 87
Without a calculator: 75
Science 53
Duration 3 h 35 min (with essay)

2 h 55 min (without essay)

3 h 50 min (with essay)

3 h (without essay)


Evidently, the ACT exam takes less time than the SAT. The last will give you more time for each question in all parts, as well as for writing an essay. Moreover, despite the same number of questions, the ACT has 32% more multiple-choice questions than the SAT.

Therefore, if you are not really good at managing time, especially when dealing with the math section, then the SAT will provide you with a much more convenient and less stressful environment than ACT.


Test Structure

ACT suggests solving each subject part (English, Math, Reading, and Science) combined into one large section with the writing of the essay at the end. 

On the other hand, all parts of the SAT (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing) are divided into ten sections. 

Before deciding which test to take, ask yourself which structure can confuse you, and which will keep you organized?


Style of Questions

ACT questions are usually more straightforward, and it’s often easier to get the gist of it on a first read. 

During SAT, before you start answering questions, you may have to take a moment to figure out what exactly is being asked. 


Science Section

Here is yet another significant difference. Unlike the SAT, ACT has an entire section dedicated to Science. It consists of 40 questions and should be taken in 35 minutes. Like the three other parts of the ACT, science disciplines affect the one-fourth of the overall score.

As STEM becomes more and more popular, it may seem strange that the SAT still has no special section for such disciplines.

However, this does not mean that the SAT has no questions to assess knowledge in these fields at all. Actually, they are just hidden in other sections, for example, in reading or writing.

Therefore, if you are a pro in science disciplines and are ready to work with an entire section dedicated to scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses, then ACT will suit you better.


Essay Content

The essay writing task is optional in both tests, and there are some differences. The SAT prompts you to read a text and then analyze how the author uses evidence and reasoning to build an argument and make it convincing. 

The ACT, in turn, offers a question and three different perspectives on it for a learner to consider before expressing a specific opinion. You can justify one of them or none at all.


The Committee Vision

The ACT is considered to give a more general picture of one’s readiness to enter college. Thus, the admissions committee pays attention to your overall ACT score while in the SAT, it’s more important how you did each section of the exam. 

Therefore, if you don’t do well with one part of the test, but ace in another, you can still get a good total score in the ACT and make a strong impression on the admissions committee.

Should You Pass Both?

In fact, the vast majority of students pass both the ACT and SAT. If the college in which you are interested in accepts the results of both tests, you may consider this possibility. 

Each test is a new opportunity, allowing you to find out which score will be higher. Although, note that when preparing for both tests simultaneously, you may not have enough time to concentrate on important details.

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Final Words

Standardized test results are important. Yet, they are not the only determinant of college and university admissions. Along with exam results, you need to pay attention to other factors of enrollment.

These are academic performance and achievements, the applicant’s motivation, social activities, hobbies, and interests.

Hopefully, this article will bring you one step closer to your dream college.