Which is the right test for you, the ACT or SAT?

Photo by Robert Kinlaw, collegetownnc.com

Unfortunately, the lazy, hazy days of a summer full of splashing in the pool and hanging out with friends are but a pleasant memory for many high school students.

Standardized tests and test prep were usually put on hold until school started back in the fall. But this summer is the first time that both the ACT and the SAT will have summer administrations. The ACT is offered on July 14, and the SAT is offered on Aug. 25.

The big decision often ends up being, “Which test is best for me?”

How do you decide which test to take? Knowing the differences between the tests is key.


4 sections – Total time: 3 hours 50 minutes with essay

1 Reading – 65 minutes, 52 questions on 5 passages

1 Language and Writing – 35 minutes, 44 questions

2 Math – 1 with calculator – 55 minutes, 38 questions; 1 without calculator – 20 minutes, 20 questions

1 essay (optional) –  50 minutes

Total number of questions: 154

Time per question: 1 minute 10 seconds


4 sections – Total time: 3 hours 35 minutes with essay

1 English – 45 minutes, 75 questions

1 Reading – 35 minutes, 40 questions

1 Math – 60 minutes, 60 questions with calculator

1 Science – 35 minutes, 40 questions on 6 or 7 passages

1 essay (optional) – 40 minutes

Total number of questions: 215

Time per question: 49 seconds

Main test scoring:

The SAT combines the reading section with the writing and language section to create one verbal score on a 200-800-point scale. The score is reported as EBRW, or “evidence-based reading and writing.”  The math component is also on a 200-800-point scale; so, the total SAT score is between 400-1600 points.

The ACT gives a score between 1 and 36 on each section, then averages the four numbers to get a composite score. The composite score rounds up.

Here’s an example. If a student scores:

Reading: 26

English: 29

Math: 25

Science: 22

Total is 102, divided by 4 equals 25.5. That would be rounded up to a composite score of 26.

Essay scoring:

Since the essay is optional on both tests, the essay score is reported separately.

SAT: Two different people read and score each essay. Each scorer awards 1-4 points in three different areas: reading, analysis and writing. Students receive three scores; one for each area. Scores range from 2-8 points with a maximum score of 24 points.

The SAT essay asks students to read a passage and write an essay analyzing the persuasive techniques – word choice, tone, literary devices – the author uses to create a compelling argument.

ACT: Each ACT essay is scored by two different graders on a scale of 1-6 across four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each domain. These domain scores are then averaged into a total score out of 12.

The ACT essay describes an issue – immigration or the ethics of medical research, for example – then provides three possible perspectives on the matter. Students are asked to evaluate the three points of view and come to their own conclusion about the question.

Most students find they have a decided preference for one essay format over the other.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.comwww.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com