Planet with rings and stars
Ascent Blog

SAT vs ACT: What’s the Difference and How Do I Prepare for Both?



Students looking to apply for college are often faced with a choice between whether to take the SAT or the ACT. These tests can make a big difference when it comes to college acceptance, so it’s no wonder why aspiring college students take this decision very seriously. Some students even choose to take both tests!

In this post, we’ll look at some of the differences between the two tests so that you can make the best choice for your educational path. We’ll then dive into some preparation ideas. So, let’s get studying!

Which Test is More Popular?

It used to be that the test you took was determined by the location or the specific preferences of your desired college. Today, both the SAT and ACT are widely accepted nationwide. Though the SAT has been around for longer, the ACT has actually surpassed it in popularity.


Even though the SAT may be starting to wane in its dominance, it’s worth considering whether it’s the preferred test for you. Your focus should be on which test fits your preferences and needs. These test results, whether they’re from the ACT or SAT, serve as one of the most important documents relating to your future college aspirations, along with the FAFSA.

What are the Differences?

At first glance, it may not seem like there is much difference between the two tests. Both have roughly the same time window to complete—around three hours—and both have an optional essay section. On the ACT, however, there are more questions to answer within that period: 215 versus the SAT’s 154. This may seem daunting, but you have to factor in that the types of questions asked are different. On the SAT, reasoning ability is primarily emphasized, whereas, with the ACT, strict knowledge is more the focus. For example, the SAT may contain more story-based math problems than the ACT.


Another main difference between the two tests is that the ACT has a science section, but the SAT does not. If you’re comfortable with the basics of high school biology and earth sciences, you may prefer the ACT for this reason. On the SAT, basic math formulas may be provided, whereas, with the ACT, you’ll be expected to have them memorized. When it comes to the reading sections of the tests, the SAT is more focused on reading comprehension whereas, on the ACT, grammar and syntax are more the focus. Overall, the balance of subjects and the style of the tests are different.

So… Which One Should I Take?

The best way to find out which test is right for you is to take the practice tests for both. This is also one of the best ways to prepare for the real thing. When you take the practice tests, be sure to emulate the testing environment as well as you can—that means abiding by the time limits, and avoiding the use of phones or friends for help. If you find that you do about the same on each test, you can choose the one that you were most comfortable taking. If you happen to be looking at a school that prefers one test over another, you’ll want to factor that in as well.


More Test Prep Tips

As we touched upon earlier, taking practice tests is the primary way to prepare. To get ready for the SAT, taking the PSAT and reviewing your results can give you a good framework for the topics you’ll want to study more. The PSAT, however, is not a good indicator of how you’ll do on the ACT. For ACT prep, you’ll want to head over to the ACT Academy, which is the official source for pre-test resources.


Once you’ve prepared as well as you can, you’ll be ready for the big day. When your test date comes, be sure that you’re well-rested and have had enough to eat. Do your best to stay relaxed, and don’t forget to breathe! All of your prep work will pay off.


After the test, reward yourself with something fun. If, when you receive your final score you think you could do better, retaking a test is an option. Be prepared, do your best, and try not to stress!

Read More Tips

Ascent is committed to providing resources for those looking to embark on their college journey, as well as those that are already enrolled. From test prep tips to financial education, we are determined to provide students with the tools they need for success. To stay in touch with the latest in college tips and tricks, be sure to check back on our blog often!

Ascent Student Loans sponsors these blog posts and creates informational content that is of interest to prospective borrowers and our applicants.

Symbol icon

Join the Ascent community!

Stay in the loop with finance tips, scholarship resources, product updates, and more.