Is the ACT harder than the SAT? Which Test Should You Take?

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Is the ACT harder than the SAT? In general terms, no! It’s actually a myth that one is harder or easier than the other. However, one may be harder for you as a person compared to the next.

Here’s what you need to know about these myths, what colleges think, and how you can personally determine which is “harder” or “easier” for you.

How are the ACT and SAT Different?

“Is the ACT harder than the SAT?” is a relevant inquiry that causes plenty of questions and misconceptions out there about the difficulty or ease of these two tests.

The answer isn’t straightforward – it depends on you as an individual! Both are used by a number of colleges to help with admission decisions (though some schools are dropping the requirement all together!), use (mostly) multiple choice questions, and cover some similar topics. However, there are differences between the exams that should be noted to help you make this call, too.

First, let’s look at what each of the tests are, how they differ from one another, and then how you can determine which is the right exam for you.

What is the ACT?

 The ACT is administered by the ACT, which is a nonprofit organization. There are four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Each of the four sections are graded on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest score possible. All four scores are then averaged to come to the “composite ACT score.” The exam also has an optional writing test.

The ACT lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes, with an additional 40 minutes if you decide to take the writing portion. Total, there are 215 questions on the test – 75 on English, 60 on math, and 40 each on reading and science.

What is the SAT?

Administered by the College Board, the SAT has two sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. The sections are scored on a 200 to 800 point scale and the numbers are added together to arrive at your SAT Combined score. So the highest possible score you can receive on the SAT is 1600. The SAT essay is no longer available because it was discontinued in 2021.

The SAT takes students 3 hours to complete. With 154 multiple choice questions, the exam has 52 questions on reading, 44 questions on writing and language, and 58 questions on math.

How is the ACT Different From the SAT?

There are plenty of differences between the ACT and the SAT that are obvious right off the bat. Let’s do a quick review of the obvious differences and the not-so-obvious ones:

  • The ACT allows a calculator for the entire math section; the SAT only allows it for part of the exam
  • The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not
  • The other sections, although similar in name, cover different material
  • The ACT has an optional writing section; the SAT no longer offers this
  • The ACT has 215 questions; the SAT has 154 questions
  • The ACT is graded on a 1 to 36 scale; the SAT is graded on a 400-1600 scale.

To learn more about the differences and what to expect on the exams, check out this article.

So although on paper they may seem very similar, there are differences that you’ll want to consider.

Is the ACT Harder than the SAT?

No! The ACT is not harder than the SAT, and the SAT isn’t harder than the ACT. It all comes down to your personal preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. What is difficult for you may not be difficult for your best friend. It’s important to identify the best test for you to give yourself the best chances of getting into your dream college.

ACT vs SAT Test: Which Should You Take?

In order to tell which you should take, the SAT or ACT, it’s important to first determine your strengths and weaknesses. The best way to do this? Take a practice exam of each! If you seriously struggled on the science section of the ACT, the SAT may be for you. If you had a really tough time on the no calculator math section of the SAT, you might want to opt for the ACT. You could find you simply prefer one test over the other.

And think about your strengths outside the section titles, too. Each exam actually tests different skill sets! A student who is good at reading and critical thinking could be stronger at the SAT. And a student who is better with reading charts, graphs, and data may have an easier time on the ACT.

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is essential to the decision, but it’s also a must for knowing which areas of the exam need your most attention when it comes to study and prep.

Should You Take Both the SAT and ACT?

It’s recommended that you take the SAT or ACT more than once, but if you can’t decide on which one is better for you, should you take both?

This isn’t the best course of action for everyone, but it could pay off for some students. Here are some questions to ask yourself before deciding to sit for both exams:

  • Do you have time to study for each?
  • Studying for the ACT or the SAT can take up a lot of time. Studying for both may be difficult for some students.
  • Do you have access to resources for both?
  • Although some sections and questions can be similar between both tests, they do have a lot of differences, too. Even with the overlap, you will need study materials for both exams which may not be possible to access for some.
  • Can you deal with the stress?
  • With the added time of studying for both, there’s no doubt it can be stressful.
  • Is it at all beneficial for you to take both?
  • It’s very likely that one test is better for you than the other. Identifying this will help you save time and stress. But think about the pros of taking both exams for you, too. Some benefits include:
    • You might score higher on the real-deal ACT than the SAT, even if you felt you did better on the SAT practice test (or vice versa).
    • You can give schools more information about your abilities.
    • You could open more doors to merit aid such as scholarships and grants.

Do Colleges Prefer the ACT or the SAT?

Colleges do not prefer one over the other. They will accept either. It’s also important to note though that some schools have made these exams optional. This means you can submit your test score if you wish to, but you don’t necessarily have to. However, it’s generally still recommended that you sit for either exam because even though they’re not “required,” having those test results could break the tie between you and another student.

Certain parts of the country, however, do tend to go for one exam over the other. The northeast prefers the SAT, while the south prefers the ACT, for example. However, you are not restricted to your locale! If you live in New York, you are absolutely free to take the ACT (I did!).

So, while a student might feel that one is harder than the other, it’s not because the ACT is inherently more difficult than the SAT. It all has to do with your particular talents!

Colleges and universities look for certain test scores from their applicants. It’s important to determine which test is right for you so you can improve your chances of an approval letter. Find out what schools are looking for using our College Match tool.