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Your Quick & Easy Guide to the SAT and ACT Exams for US Universities

Whether you are living in the United States or on the other side of the world, students who wish to attend a US college must take either the ACT or SAT exam. Your scores influence not just the admissions decision, but also your chances of earning merit-based scholarships, like athletics-based scholarships

Many colleges don’t give preference to one test over another, and students can choose to take both or just one. Statistics indicate that in the year 2019, close to 2.2 million aspirants completed the SAT while 1.8 million opted for the ACT. The objective of these tests is to evaluate a student’s college readiness and they achieve this through different scoring systems. Here’s a quick overview of what you need to know.

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Let’s Talk About Some Basic Details

While some facets of the SAT and ACT are similar, there are a few distinctions. Although the difficulty levels are also similar, you could consider taking the full-length ACT practice test to assess your capabilities. You’ll develop an understanding of how you’ll score percentile-wise and how well you handle the time pressure. Testing your knowledge and determining the questions you’re likely to find the most challenging will give you a better chance at preparing and scoring well.

  • Without an essay portion, the SAT length is typically 3 hours and the ACT is similarly 2 hours and 55 minutes.
  • Expect to answer 154 questions for the SAT while the ACT has 215 questions.
  • In both the SAT and ACT, you have the option of whether or not to complete the essay section. Although most colleges don’t require the essay, it is recommended that you take it. The extra data point could help your application.
  • SAT essays are based on a source text, and the questions test your comprehension of the matter in this text. On the other hand, the ACT presents complex issues and tests how well you can evaluate and analyze them.
  • The Reading section in the SAT has five sections while the ACT has four.
  • The SAT does not cover science knowledge, but the ACT does. This section is designed to test your critical thinking abilities and not your specific knowledge of the concepts. If you’re taking the SAT, expect to answer science-related questions incorporated all through the test.
  • Both tests have a Math section covering arithmetic, algebra I and II, trigonometry, and geometry. However, while the SAT evaluates your data analysis skills, the ACT has questions on probability and statistics.
  • SAT scores are calculated from 400 to 1600, whereas ACT scores are added up from 1 to 36. There are charts which show you how these scores roughly compare to each other
  • The cost of the two tests are very similar. The SAT is $49.50, but if you choose to take the optional essay, you’ll pay $64.50. The ACT fee is $52.00, $68.00 with the essay portion.

The SAT breaks down sections into timed portions, like the Reading Test that takes 65 minutes, the Writing and Language test that takes 35 minutes, and the 80-minute math section. On the other hand, the ACT has a 35-minute Reading test, a 35-minute science test, and an English test that takes 45 minutes. The Math section requires 60 minutes to complete. 


SAT or ACT - Your Choice as an International Student

Your SAT or ACT scores are a critical part of your candidacy, and international students choose the test they wish to take according to their proficiency. Some colleges may require additional Subject Tests, though sending your ACT scores may allow you to skip this requirement. Subject tests have 21 variations that you can choose from, including four core courses and nine languages. 

The core subject areas are English literature, History, Math, and Science. If you belong to a non-English speaking country and hope to train in a youth economic opportunity program, you might have to take the TOEFL® test.

The SAT is the most popular choice internationally. If you wish to take the test in your home country, you might find that there are more locations and dates available. On the other hand, the ACT is known to be less linguistically focused. If English isn’t your first language, the ACT’s greater emphasis on mathematics and critical thinking might better showcase your ability.  

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You Can Choose to Take the Test Multiple Times 

When sending an application to your preferred college, you can choose to send the scores that are likely to give you a maximum chance of getting approval. This system is called the SAT Score Choice. Some colleges expect to see all the scores you’ve sent. To raise your odds, check the average scores of the school where you’re applying. 

Calculating the 75th percentile SAT score for successful candidates will give you an estimate of the expected scores. Many colleges release the average SAT or ACT scores of accepted applicants, so getting the information should be easy. While you do have the option of sending in multiple scores, know that the school “superscores” your results. They’ll calculate the highest composite score by adding up your highest scores in each section. 

Getting good scores on your ACT or SAT takes time and careful planning. You might want to start prepping well in advance of college application submission dates and ensure you attach impressive scores to maximize your chances of getting the coveted seats.

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About the author


Pocket Prep believes that test prep should be affordable, accessible, and engaging for everyone. For close to a decade, the Pocket Prep team has been dedicated to providing the most effective, convenient and engaging test prep for more than 100 standardized exams.

Last update: 16 Oct 2020

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