SAT vs ACT: Which Is Easier?

Godzilla vs Kong, Alien vs Predator, SAT vs ACT: it’s a classic “pick the lesser evil” scenario. So which is easier, or the lesser evil? Luckily, it’s easy to choose once you have enough information.

First, What About Test-Optional?

If you’re hoping you can skip the whole SAT vs ACT decision and simply apply test-optional, that’s very understandable! These tests create an unhealthy amount of stress in students’ lives, not to mention they’ve been shown to disadvantage students based on family income, race, disability, and gender. So applying test-optional can seem like the perfect solution. The problem is, while test-optional admissions sounds like it would be a student-friendly policy, that’s not necessarily the case. Colleges benefit from test-optional policies because more students apply, which means they get a lower acceptance rate and seem more selective. 

But how does test-optional benefit students? Are students without scores actually accepted at a meaningful rate? What’s the acceptance rate for students who apply with scores, versus students who apply without? Very few schools release these numbers. But based on the handful of universities that have released their numbers, students with scores have a clear advantage. What’s more, test scores often affect scholarship money. Universities like to attract students with high scores, so those without scores may wind up with more debt. That’s why at HeyCollege, we strongly recommend that students follow a test prep plan—and it starts with the question: SAT vs ACT, which is easier?

SAT vs ACT: Do Colleges Have a Preference?

One quick note before we get started—it’s a myth that colleges prefer one test over another. They just want you to get the highest score possible because it helps their ranking. So when it comes to SAT vs ACT, all you have to worry about is your own preference. How do you figure out which test is easier for you? You have a couple of options…

First Option: SAT vs ACT Gut Check

To quickly compare the SAT vs ACT, you may be able to decide pretty quickly, in just a couple of hours. All you’ll need is the official booklet for each test. You may be able to borrow recent copies from the library or a friend, or you can order them online: The Official College Board SAT Manual and The Real Act Prep Guide. At HeyCollege, we start this process with our 10th-grade students in the spring so that they have plenty of time in the coming year for low-stress test prep. Students usually need about an hour per test to get a good feel for each section and the time limits. That alone may be enough to answer the “SAT vs. ACT: which is easier?” question. But if students don’t have a clear preference after reviewing the test booklets, another great option is a mini diagnostic test.

Second Option: Mini-Diagnostic Test

In the world of elite private test prep, students settle the SAT vs ACT question by taking diagnostic exams. Tutors have their students come in to take the SAT one day and then the ACT another day, and then the scores are compared. To make this process more accessible for all students, we’ve developed a version that’s just as effective but can be done at home in less time. To determine which test is easier, it’s not necessary for students to take full-length diagnostic exams at a test center. It’s just as accurate to focus only on the reading and math scores. 

We recommend testing in a quiet place (some libraries have study rooms that can be booked). Set aside 2–3 hours on two weekends in a row. Try to take each test at the same time on the same day (for example, 11am on a Sunday). It’s nobody’s idea of a fun way to spend the weekend, but it will save lots of time in the long run. Not to mention, since schools like to attract students who will bring their average score up, a higher SAT or ACT score can translate to quite a bit more aid and scholarship money! So without further ado, here’s a foolproof plan for answering the “SAT vs. ACT: which is easier?” question for yourself:

SAT vs ACT: Which is Easier, Weekend 1:

  • Complete the “Reading Test” section of the ACT (35 minutes, 40 questions)
  • Complete the “Reading Test” section of the SAT (65 minutes, 52 questions)
  • Grade each test using the booklets’ grading rubrics to see how many questions you got right, or your “raw score.” Then, for the SAT, convert your raw score here to determine your SAT Reading score. For the ACT, use the booklet’s Scale Score Conversion Table.

Important Note: Respect time limits. The point of this exercise isn’t to do as well as possible—it’s to figure out which test is the best fit. If you feel disappointed by your scores, you’re not alone. So don’t worry—it’s an opportunity for big point gains in the future!

SAT vs ACT: Which is Easier, Weekend 2

  • Complete both Math Test sections of the SAT (total: 80 minutes, 58 questions)
  • Complete the ACT “Mathematics Test” (60 minutes, 60 questions)
  • Grade each test using the booklets’ grading rubrics to determine how many questions you got right, or your “raw score.” Then, for the SAT, convert your raw score here to determine your SAT math score. For the ACT, use the booklet’s Scale Score Conversion Table.

Woohoo, you’re done! To figure out whether your scores favor the ACT or SAT, here’s a great website that offers several free SAT vs ACT tools. Congrats, you’ve answered the SAT vs ACT question once and for all. It gets easier from here! Going through this process for the first time usually feels weird and cumbersome. By comparison, you can squeeze test prep into your daily routine by spending just a few minutes on your phone. When you start early enough, like 10th grade, even just 10 or 20 minutes a day is plenty. Remember, the earlier you start, the less stressful the process will be!