ACT vs SAT: Which Test Should You Take?

Matt Larriva
Jan 19, 2021

Which test should I take, the ACT vs SAT?

“Which test test is easier and when is the easiest test date?”

We get asked these questions a lot.

That makes sense! Why wouldn’t students want to make taking the SAT or ACT as easy as possible?

Fear not!

In this article, we’ll get to the bottom of all things SAT vs ACT.

First, let's work through our infographic to learn the basics of deciding between the ACT vs SAT.

act vs sat infographic

Differences Between The ACT and SAT

We've put a lot of thought and research into pinpointing the primary differences between the ACT and SAT tests. And the more I consider the SAT vs ACT, the more I find the ACT to be the better test.

Here are the differences between the two tests that came to light during my research:

Some Schools Will Take One ACT vs One SAT and Two SAT IIs.

That means you could put all the effort you would have distributed across three tests (SATI, SATII, 2nd SAT II) and just focus on the ACT.

Save time and money in the test prep and test-taking experience.

The ACT Is The Easier Test

Why do I say this?

There are only four answer choices on each question, and there are no guessing penalties on the ACT, unlike the SAT.

So not only do you have a higher chance of guessing/choosing the correct answer, there is no guessing penalty.

Another reason its easier is the English section--the passage lengths don't vary which means you need fewer strategies to adapt to them.

act sat test point gains

The ACT & SAT Have Different Grading Curves

It's also easier to get into a higher percentile when taking the ACT rather the SAT.

Let's consider how they tests are curved:

  • Correctly answering 90% of the questions on the SAT produces a 1440 (CR+M) which is the 97th percentile.

Whereas...

  • Correctly answering 90% of the questions on the ACT produces a 33, which is the 99th percentile.

Length & Timing Differences

The SAT has 10 sections.

Whereas...

The ACT has 5.

The SAT is longer: 3 hours and 45 minutes long vs the ACT which is about 3 hours and 20 minutes.

The ACT Doesn’t Test Vocabulary & The SAT Tests It To No End

Vocabulary shows up on every critical reading section of the SAT for about 8-10 questions in the Completing Sentences part. Then the same topic comes up again in the actual passages of the CR section.

And then once more in the Writing section on those rare diction questions:

(i.e. The noisome band music was so loud I couldn’t study—-noisome is the error, it actually doesn’t have to do with noise).

So if you don’t want to spend hours and hours memorizing the top 250 hardest vocabulary words, the 100 most common vocab words, and the 500 most recent word lists, go with the ACT.

Which Is Easier: The SAT or ACT?

Based on the factors above, all things point to the ACT being the easiest test.

But is the ACT easier than SAT for all students?

Not always...

This is where it starts depending on the student's individual test-taking style.

The SAT Is Easier If Passage Based Questions Aren't Your Strong Suit

Here's why:

The SAT test includes vocabulary.

But...

The ACT test includes science.

For most students, this most important difference between the ACT and SAT.

Why?

Because the science test on the ACT does not test science knowledge.

It is a critical reading test with scientific information instead of literary information.

The ACT has the Reading and the Science sections which essentially test the same ability.

Thus, you will see your Science score and Reading score move in tandem.

So, if you have a high accuracy at reading and answering passage-based questions, then you should take a ACT test which has more weight on passage-based problems.

Conversely, if passage-based questions are not your strong suit, then go with the SAT whose total score is less than 1/3 passage-based.

take act for more passage based questions
take sat for fewer passage based questions

How to Decide Which Test to Take: The ACT vs SAT

If you're not sure what test to take--the ACT vs SAT--here's a fundamental method for deciding which test to take:

  • Figure out your accuracy (problems correct/total problems) on the SAT passage part of Critical Reading.
  • Figure out your accuracy on the rest of the SAT
  • If the calculation from 1 is greater than 2, then switch to the ACT
  • If the calculation from 1 is less than 2, then stay on the SAT.

Now that you know the ACT test is easier than the SAT, and have also decided which test is actually going to be easiest for you. We bet you want to know what the easiest test date is, too.

Well, let's examine that query...

What Is The Easiest Test Date For The ACT vs SAT?

We know some tests are harder than others.

Try as they might, the test makers cannot produce two identically challenging exams.

Because of this, and because the pool of test takers changes with every exam, some tests have more perfect scorers than others. And on some tests, you can miss two questions and still score perfectly, while on others, missing two questions drops you far down in the point scale.

But what makes for a hard test?

Is it just the luck of the draw, or is it a function of whom you take the tests with?

Is it the behind-the-scenes magic of scaling, or is it the time-of-year?

The old logic goes like this: testing with more seniors must make for a more competitive base, and thus students will face more difficulty achieving a top score.

So the trick must be to test with the most inexperienced group, and that must happen during spring, after the seniors are done testing, right?

The short answer is no.

According to our research and a meta-study of analyses, there is no 'easy' test date for the ACT or the SAT.

Though it sounds simplistic, the easiest time to take a ACT or SAT test is when you feel most prepared.

The long answer is a little more complicated...

These tests are scaled, and the methods used are opaque.

This has led to speculation over ways to game the system by choosing the optimal factors like time and cohort. While those factors do not appear to impact test difficulty, there are variations that are worth noting. Understanding those requires knowledge of exactly what happens in the process of translating a a raw score to a scaled score.

act vs sat test inspiration

Every student wants to do well on the SAT test.

This guide shows you how.

Learn our proven formula to earn a perfect score on the SAT Essay portions.

ACT vs SAT Grading Scales: How They Were Made Made

When most parents and students think of a grading scale, they think of a curve: a student’s raw score is mapped to their final score based on their performance compared to the other members of their class.

This is NOT how score scaling works on the ACT or SAT. 

Students are not being compared to the other students who took the test during their same test date or even their same testing year.  If the test was scaled using the usual curve, then the proportion of students who get a great, average, or lackluster score would be the same for every testing day. 

But we do not see this, instead there are some testing days when more students than expected get a perfect score and others when fewer do.

ACT Grade Scale

The ACT compares students to data based on the Academic Skills Study conducted in 1988.  This data was weighted and distributed into two categories, all examinees and college-bound examinees, and the outliers were removed. 

The college-bound data was then used to create the initial score scale.  Minor adjustments were then made to this initial scale to ensure that each score fell within a reasonable margin of error, that there were no gaps in the score scale, and that there were not too many raw scores that converted to a single scaled score.

act grade scale calculator
A study conducted by the ACT concluded that calculators had little influence on the ACT grade scale.

The ACT conducted another study in 1995 to ensure that the introduction of calculators (which had previously been prohibited) to the test did not change the meaning of the 1988 scale.  It was found that there was not a significant difference in meaning, and the scale based on the 1988 data remains in use to this day.

SAT Grade Scale

The SAT’s score scaling data is based on the 2014 Scaling Study conducted by the College Board.  Because the SAT’s process for screening and distributing their data was fairly similar to the one described for the ACT, and for the sake of brevity, I will not go into further detail.

Grading Scale Summary

For those who are interested in a more in-depth look at the scaling process, I recommend reading for themselves Chapter 9 of the ACT Technical Manual or Chapter 6 of the SAT Suite of Assessments Technical Manual, both of which can be found online for free.

All of this is to say that whom a student takes their test with will have absolutely no bearing on their final score. 

Students are being compared to college-bound students from 2014 or 1988, not their peers.  Therefore, there is absolutely no advantage to avoiding test dates which have a high proportion of Seniors (who usually test in September and October).  Seniors will not “break the curve”: their high scores will have no impact on the scores of other students.

But Some ACT & SAT Tests Are Still “Harder” Than Others

Even with the misconception that other students can “break the curve” out of the way, many students will still say that certain test dates felt harder than others. 

This makes sense:

the logistics of creating and administering the SAT and ACT make it almost impossible for each test to be the exact same level of difficulty as all the others.

The makers of the SAT and ACT know this, but before getting into what steps the test makers have taken to reduce the effect of this reality on final scores, let’s define what it means for a test to be “hard.”

What students tell their parents that a test was hard, what they really mean is that the test “felt hard”.  Unfortunately, this is not a very useful way to think about difficulty.  Not only is everyone’s personal metric for what feels difficult different, but something “feeling easy” is too far vague to create a codified definition for what makes a test “easy” or hard”.

A more useful way to think about difficulty is in terms of “how many questions can I miss and still achieve my target score”. 

student pondering if act or sat easier

If a student can miss more questions than they usually get wrong in practice and achieve their target score, then that is what makes the test easy

Similarly, if a student needs to miss fewer questions than they usually get wrong to reach their target, then that makes the test hard.

Now, recall that test makers have a system for making sure small difference in difficulty between tests do not affect final scaled scores.  This system is called Equating, and, ironically, because of it, tests which feel hard for students are actually easy when using the above definition for difficulty, and similarly, tests which feel easy are actually quite difficult.

How The Scale Is Made: Equating

Equating is the process that ensures each new official test form's final converted score has the same meaning as all the other test forms which came before it.

New test forms are equated using a carefully selected sample of national examinees. 

They are given a set of tests that contain the new test forms as well as one anchor form which has already been equated to previous forms.  The new forms are then compared to the anchor form using equipercentile equating, outliers are removed, and the result becomes the raw-to-scaled conversion chart for that specific test form.

The charts which come out of this system are designed so that when a test is easier, more questions need to be answered correctly, and when a test is more difficult, fewer questions need to be answered correctly to achieve the same reported score. 

In this way, a certain score demonstrates the same amount of skill on the part of the student, regardless of what version of the test they are taking.

For an example of this in practice, take a look at the two raw-to-scaled conversion charts below:

Test A: 2017-2018 ACT Practice Test Conversion Chart

Easiest SAT Test Date exhibit 1

Test B: 2008-2009 ACT Practice Test Conversion Chart

Easiest ACT Test Date exhibit 2

Focusing on the English Section, we see that in order to receive a minimum score of 35, a student can miss 3 questions on Test B but may only miss 2 questions on Test A.  This means that if a particular student took both versions of the test and they missed 2 questions on Test A, that student would be expected to miss 3 questions on Test B.

The scale of Test B is easier, because the test itself was harder.  Plus, thinking back to our new definition of what “easy” and “difficult” mean, because a student can miss more questions on the English Section of Test B and still receive a certain score, that makes that section of Test B easier, even though the actual material written in that section is more difficult.

When Are The Easiest ACT and SAT Test Dates?

The easiest ACT and SAT test date is when a student is most prepared.

  • If a student is performing consistently and can avoid making simple errors such as misreading questions or typing things into their calculator incorrectly, then the exact scale of the test they are taking will not affect their final score. 
  • Furthermore, there is no way to predict what the scale of a test date will be before getting the results back.  To do so would require knowing what specific questions would be asked on the test, which is problematic for obvious reasons. 

Therefore, students should focus on taking the test when the timing works for them, and when they have reached a point in their preparation where they can achieve their target score.

For a full analysis on the optimal timeframe, and for help on deciding when to take the SAT and ACT, please review our articles:

The best way to improve a student’s score is not for them to worry about which test date will be “easier”. 

Rather, the best use of a student’s time is to figure out which test is best for them and create test prep schedule far enough in advance that they can improve their score.

ACT vs SAT: Still Need Help Deciding?

sat essay scoring expert advice

Choosing between the SAT and ACT is a tough but important process. Selecting the test that will showcase your strengths and downplay your weaknesses can add points to your percentile rank and make you a more competitive candidate for your dream school.


Use our helpful infographic to compare the tests and decide which one is best for you, then confirm your findings by talking with us, and attending one of our upcoming practice tests.


Start with the right test and add Powerful Prep to the process, and you’ll be an unstoppable candidate.

ACT vs SAT: Frequently Asked Questions

ACT vs. SAT: Which test will you score higher on?

It is largely believed that the ACT is the less coachable of the two tests.

The ACT markets itself as a general knowledge test, whereas the SAT markets itself as a reasoning test. So whereas you can coach someone on strategies for reasoning, it is much more difficult to coach someone on general knowledge.

The ACT believes that by testing a wider variety of topics, they will more accurately assess the aptitude of a student and how well they understood their high school curriculum.

The SAT believes that by testing the reasoning and logic abilities of a student they will gauge how well that student will be able to succeed in college.

Numerous studies both prove and disprove the validity of both tests’ assumptions.

However, if you excelled in high school and have good retention,

If you did not excel in high school but feel you can reason your way through questions,

Will I have to prepare for two completely different tests (the ACT and the SAT)?

The SAT vs ACT are remarkably similar.

The SAT has three sections:
Writing
Math
Critical Reading

The ACT has:
Science
Writing/English
Math
and Critical Reading.

The ACT doesn’t penalize guessing and has an optional writing section whereas the SAT penalizes guessing and has a non-optional writing section.

The ACT Science section does not actually test science knowledge, but rather critical reading of scientific passages—science knowledge is nearly useless for this section.

The ACT covers a bit of trigonometry, whereas the SAT does not. The ACT is a shorter test, clocking in at 3 hours 25 minutes, while the SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes. The materials, formats, and subject matter are so similar that only a small amount of preparation is required to move from one test to the other.

Simply prepare thoroughly for whichever test you like, SAT vs ACT, and then take it. Spend 2 weeks cross-training over to the other test and then take that one. Submit whichever score is higher—as a percentage, and enjoy the results.

Do I have to choose between the ACT and SAT?

Take both tests. It is very unlikely that you will score identically on both tests, so you will have a higher percent score on one than the other. Since nearly all colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT, you may submit whichever score is higher, and not submit the other.