Why should students take the ACT or SAT?

Four-year colleges and universities use these tests to determine applicants’ academic achievement and potential. As part of their admissions requirements, some colleges require applicants to have earned certain minimum test scores. Other colleges use test scores as indicators of academic ability when students’ grades are not high enough to meet admissions standards. ACT and SAT test scores also serve as criteria for numerous financial awards.

How do I know if I should take the ACT or the SAT?

Some colleges prefer one or the other exam; however, most colleges accept either. Students should check with each school individually to see if they have a preference. Students who haven’t yet decided on a specific college may want to take both exams.

If the college accepts both exams, students should choose the one that will most favorably reflect their abilities. The chart below illustrates the major differences.

How long is it?

3 hours (without essay)
3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)

2 hours, 55 minutes
(without essay)
3 hours, 35 minutes
(with essay)
When is it administered? Seven times per year Six times per year
What is the test structure? Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes
Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes
Math: no calculator—20 questions,  25 min; with calculator—38 questions, 55 min
Optional essay: 1 prompt, 50 min
English: 75 questions, 45 min
Reading: 40 questions, 35 min Math: 60 questions, 60 min
Science: 40 questions, 35 min
Optional essay: 1 prompt, 40 min
What is the test content?  

Evidence-Based Reading:

1 U.S. or World Literature, 2 History or Social Studies, 2 Science; Main Idea, Vocab-in-Context, Inference, Evidence Support, Data Reasoning, Technique, Detail-Oriented


Standard English Conventions: 20 questions (45%), covering sentence structure, conventions of usage, and conventions of punctuation

Expression of Ideas: 24 questions (55%), covering development, organization and effective language use


Heart of Algebra — 33%
Problem Solving and Data Analysis — 28%
Passport to Advanced Math — 29%
Additional Topics in Math — 10%



Optional Essay:

Writing, Reading, and Analysis


Usage and Mechanics: sentence structure (20-25%), grammar and usage (15-20%), and punctuation (10-15%)
Rhetorical Skills: style (15-20%), strategy (15-20%), and organization (10-15%)


1 Prose Fiction or Literary Narrative, 1 Social Sciences, 1 Humanities, 1 Natural Sciences; Main Idea, Vocab-in-Context, Inference, Detail-Oriented


Pre-algebra — 20-25%
Elementary algebra — 15-20%
Intermediate algebra — 15-20%
Coordinate geometry — 15-20%
Plane geometry — 20-25%
Trigonometry — 5-10%


Data representation — 30-40%
Research summaries — 45-55%
Conflicting viewpoints — 15-20%

Optional Essay:

Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions

Is there a penalty for wrong answers? No penalty No penalty
How is the test scored? Total composite score of 400-1600
* 2 section scores (200-800)
* 3 test scores (10-40)
*2 cross-test scores
Total composite score of 1-36 
(based on average of 4 tests)
* 4 section scores (1-36)
* Optional essay score (1-36)
Are all scores sent to colleges? No, the student decides which test administration scores are sent. No, the student decides which test administration scores are sent.

To register for the SAT and for more information, please visit the College Board website.

To register for the ACT and for more information, please visit the ACT website.