ACT , High School , SAT , Test Prep

5 Differences Between the SAT and ACT

They serve the same purpose, but what makes these exams different? How do the formats differ? How much time do you get for each? Are they different prices? Read on to get an overview of the main differences between the exams.
Mar 07, 2023
5 Differences Between the SAT and ACT

If you’re a high school student looking to apply to college, chances are you’ve heard of the SAT and ACT. You know that you *usually* have to take one or both of these tests in order to get into most colleges. However, do you really know what makes them different from each other? Below is a breakdown of the major differences between the two tests. This information will help you decide which could be best for you!

1. Test Format 

The first big difference between the SAT and ACT is their overall structure. Both exams test a range of topics, such as math, reading comprehension, grammar, and vocabulary. However, they have slightly different focuses.


  • 4 required sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math – one section with a calculator, and one without
  • Covers more advanced math concepts than the ACT does
  • No separate essay section – the College Board got rid of it in January 2021


  • 4 required sections: English, Math (with a calculator), Reading, and Science
  • The Science section is unique – although in-depth science knowledge is not required
    • The ACT describes the section content as including: “biology, chemistry, physics, and the Earth/space sciences (for example, geology, astronomy, and meteorology)” with 40-50% being data interpretation, 20-30% scientific investigation, and 25-35% evaluation of models, and experimental results
  • Optional essay section
    • Check with the schools on your application list first. See if they require you to take the essay section, although in general it is not required
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2. Scoring 

The scoring systems for each test also differ. It’s important to note that there is no penalty for wrong answers on either exam, so it’s best to bubble in every single question – even if you have to guess.


  • Scored on a scale from 400-1600 with 600 being considered “average” for each section


  • Scored out of 36 for each section (with 36 being perfect)
  • If you take the optional essay, it’s scored separately from 0-12 and added to your composite score from the first four tests (which can range from 1-36)

3. Pricing

The tests aren’t cheap. Factor in preparation and the cost of sending scores to schools and you’re looking at a significant bill. However, there is an option to check your eligibility for a fee waiver for the SAT, and fee waiver for the ACT, which could help you save. Here are the current fees:

Registration fees

SAT: $60

ACT: $63 (or $88 with the writing portion)

In terms of the ACT, make sure to check whether the universities you are applying to require the writing portion. You don’t want to pay extra for no reason!

Additionally, register well in advance so you don’t get hit with late registration fees on top of what you’ve already paid. If you register late for the ACT, you’ll pay $36 extra. That is more than half the price to register in the first place. Registering late for the SAT means you’ll pay $30 extra on top of the registration fee.

Score report fees

There is a cost for sending score reports as well. Both the SAT and ACT allow for four free score reports. That means you can send your score results from each respective exam date to four universities for free. The caveat is that you won’t be able to see your score before it is sent to the schools. In this case, it’s recommended that you use your four free score reports on colleges that require all your testing scores.

Extra SAT reports: $12 each

Extra ACT reports: $16 each

Let’s say you take the SAT once and are applying to 10 schools. You use your four free reports on four schools, and then pay to send reports to the remaining six universities. You will have paid $60 to register plus $72 in score reports.

Lastly, keep in mind that between the two tests, there may be additional fees. Some of these include late registration, test center or date changes, and cancellation. You can check the fees, timeline for sending score reports, and official registration deadlines, on the College Board and ACT websites.

4. Retakes

You have the option to retake the SAT or ACT if you do not get the score you want on your first try. You should aim to take the exams two to three times maximum. 


  • Technically, you can take the SAT as many times as you want (but that’s not recommended and obviously expensive and exhausting!)
  • You should take the test for the first time around your junior year spring and your senior year fall per the College Board’s recommendation
  • You also have the option to take the PSAT your sophomore or junior year of high school. Check out the College Board PSAT pages for more information about this exam.


  • You can take the ACT 12 times. But again, that is obviously not recommended, and expensive!
  • You can take the ACT on a similar timeline as the SAT

If you decide to take both tests, make sure you organize your study schedule to accommodate both. When you’re first trying to decide which to take, try a practice exam of each first. You can see how you do and what feels more comfortable.

Also, it’s better to study for one exam first instead of preparing for both at the same time. Then, study and sit for the other test afterwards.

Is it worth it to retake an exam?

The benefit of taking the exam more than once is that you can learn from your mistakes. If you take one and want to raise your score, start working with a tutor. Or, use different study resources to boost your performance. There are many affordable online tutors on Lessonpal that focus on SAT and ACT prep!

Plus, both tests have a policy that allows you to send only your highest score to the schools you are applying to. It’s important to note though, that this policy ultimately depends on the individual university. Some schools will ask you to send all your scores – not just your best.

Depending on the school, they may also Superscore your ACT results. This means they take the highest score on each individual section and use those numbers to make your overall score.

As you can tell, it’s worth it to make a list of the requirements and rules for each college you are planning to apply to so you can stay organized. This will save you money in the end too! Why pay to send a score report to a school that requires you to share all your scores? If you know this ahead of time, you can use one of your free score reports on that school instead of paying $12 for no reason!

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5. Time Allotted

Each test has different time allotments per section. It’s important to remember that time management skills are key when taking either test. Be sure to practice pacing yourself beforehand! Take a few full practice exams before the big day to really understand how much time you have per question.

This could be the most important difference when it comes down to the type of test taker you are. The SAT on average has fewer questions in each section. You also get more time to answer each question than the ACT. Check out this table created by BestColleges that provides a great breakdown of the time differences.

Credit: BestColleges

The Big Picture

From structure and content covered, to time allotted per section, there are many differences between these two tests. At the same time, both tests serve as indicators of comprehension and problem-solving skills. They test the knowledge you learned in high school, and for skills that you’ll need in college.

Ultimately, understanding how each test works and what makes them different will help determine which one best suits your abilities. Make sure to double-check whether the universities you are applying to require scores, require all your scores, or are test optional.

To find SAT and ACT tutoring at affordable prices, check out test prep tutors on Lessonpal.

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