ACT and SAT Score Comparison: Score Conversions and Chart

The ACT and the SAT: both three-letter brands that used to be acronyms, both crappy ways to spend a Saturday morning. This leads many people to assume that the tests are more or less the same and that it doesn’t matter which one a student takes; however, this is very much not the case. If there are such significant differences between the two tests, though, how should you decide which one to is better for you personally? One way to begin the process of choosing between the ACT and the SAT is to take a practice test for each and see how your scores stack up. In this post, we’ll explore ACT and SAT score comparison and discuss how to convert scores between the two tests; let’s dive in.

ACT and SAT Score Comparison: Understanding the Differences Between the Tests

Before we talk about ACT and SAT score comparison, let’s do a quick review of the main differences between the two tests on a structural level.

The ACT: Sections & Timing

The ACT is composed of four multiple-choice sections, as well as an optional Writing section. The sections always appear in the same order and always have the same structure and timing; see the table below for a detailed layout of the test.

Section NameTime Limit (Standard)Number of QuestionsAvg. Time / QuestionAdditional Details
English45 minutes7536 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 5 passages; students have an average of 9 minutes per passage
Math60 minutes601 minuteMath is the only section that increases in difficulty as the section progresses; students should expect to spend more time per question at the end of the section and less time per question at the beginning
Reading35 minutes4052.5 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 4 passages; students have an average of 8 minutes 45 seconds per passage
Science35 minutes4052.5 secondsQuestions are divided approximately evenly between 6 passages; students have an average of roughly 5 minutes 50 seconds per passage
Writing (Optional)40 minutes1 prompt40 minutesThe time limit imposed on students in the Writing section includes every part of the writing process: brainstorming, outlining, writing, proofreading, etc.

The ACT: Section Composition

  • English: This section can be divided into questions that test grammar mechanics (e.g. punctuation, subject-verb agreement) and questions that test rhetorical concepts (e.g. transitions, conclusion sentences).
  • Math: The range of material tested in this section is quite large. Students should expect to see topics ranging from things they learned in 7th grade (or earlier!) and probably haven’t touched since—e.g. GCF and LCM, remainders—to those that they might not learn until near the end of Algebra II, e.g. conic sections.
  • Reading: The four passages in this section include Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Questions will require students to summarize the main point of a sizable portion of text, retrieve specific details from the passage, and consider the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of the passage. One passage will be split into two shorter texts, with questions asking about the two texts both separately and together.
  • Science: Questions in this section will require students to retrieve and synthesize information from graphs, charts, and tables under a strict time limit.

The SAT: Sections & Timing

The SAT consists of four modules divided evenly between two section-types: Reading & Writing and Math. Though most of the test is multiple-choice, there are several student-produced response questions, or grid-ins, in each Math module. See the table below for more details.

Section NameNumber of ModulesTime Limit Per Module (Standard)Number of Questions Per ModuleAdditional Details

Reading & Writing
232 minutes27Questions are divided into five general question-types; each question requires no more than 1-2 paragraphs of reading
Math235 minutes22 (15 MC, 7 grid-in)Math modules increase in difficulty as the questions progress; students should expect to spend more time per question at the end of the section and less time per question at the beginning

The SAT: Section Composition

The first thing to note about the composition of the digital SAT is that the test is section-adaptive. This means that the testing app will select an easier or harder second module for you in each section based on your performance in the first module of that type. So in other words, if you crush the first Math module, you can expect to see some very spicy questions in the second module—and the same is true for Reading & Writing.

A few more notes about the content of each section:

  • Reading & Writing: The questions in this section fall into five categories: sentence completions, analyzing text & graphs, grammar mechanics, transition words, and notes synthesis. (Note that this is the terminology I use with my students to divvy up the questions in this section; College Board uses different terms and different divisions, but I find those less clear and less helpful.) Each question-type tests a different skill or set of skills, which include understanding the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of a short paragraph; summarizing the main point of a portion of text or retrieving specific details from a short passage; applying grammar rules regarding punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and transitions; and several others.
  • Math: The SAT Math content pool is smaller than that of the ACT Math section, with more of an emphasis on concept fluency than on fast problem-solving. Students can expect a heavy focus on algebraic concepts (e.g. linear equations, quadratic equations), with a sprinkling of geometry and statistics to go with it.

ACT and SAT Score Comparison: How Scores Are Calculated

The ACT: Scoring

You’ll receive a scaled score for each section of the ACT that is based on the number of questions you answered correctly in that section and how difficult the section you took was compared to those of previous years; scaling scores based on section difficulty allows colleges to be sure that your 31 in English means the same thing as your brother’s 31 in English from 3 years ago.

Scaled scores range from 1-36, and your four scaled scores are averaged (and then rounded using standard rounding rules) to obtain your composite score for the entire test, which is also on a 1-36 scale.

Sample ACT score report


The SAT: Scoring

You’ll receive a scaled score for each half of the SAT that is based on the number of questions you answered correctly in each module, how difficult each module was, and how difficult each half of the test you took was overall compared to those of previous years. Scaled scores range from 200-800 in each of Math and Reading & Writing; your two scaled scores are then summed to obtain your composite score for the entire test, which ranges from 400-1600.

Sample SAT score report

Source: College Board website

ACT and SAT Score Comparison: Score Conversion Chart

In 2018, College Board and ACT got together (in what I can only assume was one of the most exciting and rambunctious gatherings ever; nobody parties quite like testing organizations) and hammered out a concordance table that allows students to easily convert their ACT scores to SAT scores and vice versa. This makes it significantly more straightforward for students who are deciding for which test they should prep to compare practice test results and get a sense of their starting point on each exam.

I’ve pulled the highlights from the document and included them in the table below. If you’re looking for more information about how the two testing organizations view ACT and SAT score comparison, you can read the full document released by the ACT here.

NOTE: This concordance table was released in 2018, before the SAT shifted to a digital test and made the accompanying structural changes. The scoring of the test didn’t change during that shift, however, and College Board has stated that old paper-and-pencil SAT scores can be directly compared to digital SAT scores; therefore, we don’t have a reason to believe that this table is no longer valid.


ACT and SAT Score Comparison: Using the Concordance Table

As you can see, the above chart is pretty straightforward to use. If you took an ACT practice test and scored a 25, for example, that’s equivalent to scoring approximately a 1210 on the SAT. If you take an SAT practice test and get a 1300, that falls in the 1300-1320 range (far right column) and would therefore be equivalent to scoring a 28 on the ACT.

This is a very helpful tool for students who are beginning the magical, fun-filled journey that we call test prep. Let’s say that you take a practice test for each of the ACT and SAT. On your ACT practice test, you score a 26; on your SAT practice test, you earn a composite score of 1150. Using the above concordance table, you can see that your performance on the ACT practice test was better than your performance on the SAT practice test, which indicates that your starting point on the ACT is likely to be a bit higher. This is a useful data point when deciding which test you want to dedicate your time to preparing for.

ACT and SAT Score Comparison: How to Choose Between the Two Tests

There are some additional factors other than starting score that should play into your choice between these two tests. Below, I’ll summarize the other main things you should consider when choosing between the ACT and the SAT.

  • Timing: As you may have inferred from the descriptions of the two tests earlier in this post, probably the single most important difference between them can be summed up like this: the ACT moves faster, but the average SAT question requires more work. If you’re able to move quickly enough to complete the ACT sections, you’ll likely find that you’re able to improve your accuracy noticeably with practice, as the questions tend to be a bit more superficial than those on the SAT. Similarly, if you’re approved for extended time on both tests but don’t typically use every second of your ET in school, you may find it easier to master the speed of the ACT than the content of the SAT.
  • Math Ability: You probably noticed that there’s a difference in the amount of math on these two tests: though there are technically more math questions on the ACT, the Math section makes up only 1/4 of your score on that test versus 1/2 of your score on the SAT. If you tend to be substantially stronger in the humanities than in math, this is definitely a point in favor of the ACT; on the other hand, if math is far and away your best subject in school, you may be more naturally suited for the SAT.
  • Accommodations: Each test has a separate process for getting approved for testing accommodations. If for whatever reason you’re approved by one test but not by the other, or if the two tests approve you for different levels of accommodations (like 1.5x ET versus 2x ET, which has happened to some of my students before), that will certainly factor into your decision. With this in mind, make sure you begin the accommodation application process for both tests as early as you can, since you want to be sure that you have all of the relevant information before you pick your test.

There are of course other factors that may weigh into your decision, such as the starting practice test scores that I discussed earlier; however, these tend to be the big three for many students.

ACT and SAT Score Comparison: How to Raise Your Scores

Finally, we’ll finish with some broad strategies for improving your score on either the ACT or the SAT. For additional detail about test-specific strategies, check out some of the other posts I’ve written that go into each of these tests in more depth.

Strategy #1: Give yourself enough time to prepare

This is one of the most basic tips that I can give, but it’s also one of the most important. For most students, improvement on these tests is a slow and steady process that involves consistently doing moderate amounts of practice rather than briefly doing an extreme amount of practice—make sure you allow enough time to account for that.

Another reason to start your prep earlier rather than later is to give yourself the opportunity to take the test more than once. Most students test multiple times, and the majority of those who retest score higher the second or even third time that they take the ACT or SAT.

There are a number of likely reasons for this. For one, the pressure of test day is impossible to simulate in a practice setting, so students can only really experience it and learn to deal with it by sitting for the real test. Additionally, more test dates typically means more prep, which tends to correlate with score improvement for obvious reasons. Whatever the overall cause, the data is clear: repeat testing usually leads to higher scores.

I typically recommend that my own students plan for 2-3 test dates and build their prep plans accordingly. You’d always rather allow for test dates you don’t end up needing than leave ACT/SAT prep so late that you don’t have time before applications are due to put the requisite time and effort in to achieve your goal score. If you take the test the first time and knock it out of the park, that’s fantastic—cancel the remaining dates, move on to more rewarding uses of your time, and enjoy never needing to worry about this nonsense again.

Strategy #2: Focus on strategy, not just content

Contrary to what you might think, the SAT and ACT are not tests of your content knowledge—at least, not primarily. Though they do assess your ability level with commas and right triangles, they are mainly tests of your pattern recognition skills and your ability to process information and apply critical reasoning skills under time pressure.

The upshot of this is that test-taking skills are just as important as, if not more important than, the material that you know. While you’re prepping, don’t just focus on reviewing concepts—make sure you’re also practicing test strategies both universal (e.g. process of elimination) and ACT- or SAT-specific (e.g. figuring out which order to complete the ACT Reading passages in based on your strengths and weaknesses).

Strategy #3: Practice, practice, practice

Once you’ve begun to implement specific strategies and review content, it’s imperative that you get as many reps with them as you can. Nothing refines your approach to the ACT Science section like doing a bunch of practice passages, and there’s no better way to learn how to match a subject to a verb in SAT Reading & Writing than by doing it as many times as possible.

Remember that practice by itself isn’t enough, though—it’s crucial that you try to learn from each section you complete. Build time into your practice for you to review both your mistakes and your timing. For every question you missed, ask yourself why your answer was wrong and why the correct answer was better. If you were unable to finish the section within the time limit, determine where you lost time. Was it a particular passage that slowed you down or a particular question you got stuck on? Did you get fatigued towards the end of the section and slow down because of that? Take this information with you into your next practice section and use it to inform your approach.

Strategy #4: Consider connecting with a tutor

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way up front: yes, I am an ACT and SAT tutor. Yes, that does make me biased. With that being said, though, I’m also not delusional enough to think that 1:1 tutoring is the right answer for every student, and it’s CERTAINLY not the only way to prepare successfully for this exam; I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise. Here, I’ll simply try to lay out the case for and against working with a 1:1 tutor as a tool for how to improve your ACT/SAT score.

Let’s start with the pros. For most students, personalized instruction is simply a more effective way to learn. Having someone who can answer your questions on the spot and walk through in detail any concepts you’re struggling with is a huge benefit. Additionally, any tutor worth their salt will tweak their approach as needed to cater to your individual strengths and weaknesses, which typically makes prep more efficient.

The downside to partnering with an ACT tutor is pretty simple: cost. Most tutors charge by the hour as opposed to charging a flat fee, and depending on the hourly rate, you will almost always be on the hook for significantly more of a financial outlay than you would if you opted for a prep course or simply prepared independently. Many tutors will work with families to devise a prep plan that is as efficient as possible in order to optimize the cost-to-results ratio, but there’s no getting around the fact that tutors are expensive.

As a final note, one middle ground that you can investigate is the hybrid course. These prep courses consist mainly of classroom or independent work but include a certain number of 1:1 instructional hours within the initial cost; this creates a more financially feasible option that still provides some amount of personalized instruction.

Looking To Improve Your Score on the ACT or SAT?

Strategy #5: Retake the test as needed

As I mentioned earlier, most students perform better when sitting for the test multiple times. Taking the test more than once ensures that you’re familiar with the pressure of the test-day atmosphere, which is impossible to replicate outside of an official test administration. It also gives you the option to tailor your future prep based on your results: since many schools superscore ACT and SAT results (i.e. they consider your highest score from each section across all the sets of results that you submit), you can lock down great scores on half of the test during one administration and then focus heavily on the remaining section(s) for the next test.

Though retaking the test is a powerful weapon in your prep arsenal, note that for most students there is a point of diminishing returns after three or so tests. You’ll likely start to run out of high-quality material to practice with, which can make improvement harder to come by. If you’re working with a tutor, budgetary constraints are a real factor. And finally, it’s important to remember that test preparation is work; at some point, students are better off focusing on other parts of their applications if they’re hitting a plateau after multiple rounds of testing.

Remember, it is not merely your test scores that determine whether you are granted admission to a given college. The application process is a holistic one: admissions officers also weigh your grades, extracurricular activities, and volunteering experience, and those should not be neglected in favor of a single-minded emphasis on testing.

ACT and SAT Score Comparison: Frequently Asked Questions

Which is easier, the SAT or the ACT?

Oh come on, you didn’t really think it would be that simple, did you? Neither test is easier—if there were a straightforward answer to this question, the other test wouldn’t exist because nobody would want to take it. In reality, the ACT and SAT are very different, which means that most students are better suited for one or the other; which test you find easier will depend on who you are as a test-taker.

Is the SAT Writing or the ACT Writing section easier?

The answer to this question depends on which “Writing” section you’re referring to. If you’re talking about the essay, the answer is pretty simple: the SAT no longer has an essay—even an optional one—so I suppose most students will find not writing an essay to be easier than possibly writing one, since the ACT still includes an optional essay section (which does not affect students’ overall composite scores).

If you’re referring instead to the portion of each test that assesses grammar mechanics and rhetorical skills—the ACT English section vs. some question-types in the SAT Reading & Writing section—the answer is also pretty straightforward: neither is easier. The two tests assess grammar and rhetoric in almost exactly the same way, so students are unlikely to notice much if any difference between this aspect of the SAT and ACT.

Do colleges prefer the SAT or the ACT?

Generally speaking, neither. This is a popular myth that probably originated during the time when these tests were concentrated in specific regions of the country: in the years immediately after the ACT was created, it was typically taken by students attending high schools in the Midwest, while the SAT was the test of choice in most other parts of the country.

In the present day, however, barring any weird exceptions of which I’m not aware—which may very well exist; always do your own research on the websites of the schools to which you’re applying!—schools genuinely don’t care whether you take the ACT or the SAT. The choice between the two tests is one that you should make based on your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker so that you can put forth the most compelling picture of yourself possible on your college applications.

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