Should You Take the ACT® or SAT®?

The ACT® and SAT® are the two most commonly taken college admissions exams in the United States. Achieving a high score on these exams can help improve your chances of getting admitted to your top college choices as well as help you qualify for scholarships. If you are interested in attending one of Iowa’s Regent universities (Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa), your test score is a significant contributing factor to your overall Regent Admission Index (RAI), a number based on the ACT® or SAT® test score, high school rank, high school cumulative GPA, and the number of completed high school courses. Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and University of Northern Iowa require a minimum RAI score as well as a minimum number of required high school courses to qualify for automatic admission.

Since most colleges will accept either the ACT® or SAT®, you may wonder which one you should take. Many students score similarly on both exams. However, the exams do assess different information and skills, so it is not unusual to perform better on one exam versus the other. To help you determine which exam is right for you, here are some of the key differences:

Subject Matter versus Aptitude

The ACT® tests students on subject matter covered in high school courses. On the other hand, the SAT® was designed as an aptitude test that measures reasoning, critical thinking and verbal abilities.

Test Length

The ACT® consists of a total of 215 questions and takes just under 3 hours to complete. A short break is scheduled after the first two tests. If you are taking the ACT® Plus Writing, a brief break is also scheduled before the writing test.

English – 75 questions – 45 minutes
Mathematics – 60 questions – 60 minutes
Reading – 40 questions – 35 minutes
Science – 40 questions – 35 minutes
Optional Writing – 1 prompt – 30 minutes

The SAT® consists of 10 separately timed sections with a total of 170 questions and takes 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete.

Three sections test critical reading – 70 minutes total
Three sections test mathematics – 70 minutes total
Three sections test writing – 60 minutes total
One variable (unscored) section tests critical reading, mathematics or writing – 25 minutes total

Content Covered

There are differences in the content covered on each exam.

The SAT® has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary than does the ACT®.
The ACT® has a science section while the SAT® does not.
The ACT® writing test is not required while the 25-minute SAT® essay is required. If you choose to take the optional ACT® PLUS Writing Test, the score will be listed separately; it is not included in your composite score.
The ACT® contains a small number of questions that require basic trigonometry while the SAT® does not.

Guessing Penalty

The SAT® penalizes students slightly for wrong multiple-choice answers and therefore you should leave the question unanswered if you are unable to eliminate at least one option. The ACT® does not have a guessing penalty.

Test Framework

Questions get more difficult as students progress through the SAT®. The difficulty level of the ACT® remains more constant throughout the exam. While the ACT® and SAT® tests are primarily multiple choice tests (except for the writing section), the SAT® has a math section that requires students to produce their own answers.


Each SAT® subject score is reported on a scale from 200-800 for a combined maximum score of 2,400. For the class of 2011, average scores were:

National average = 1,500 
Iowa’s average (based on 1,254 test-takers) = 1,777

The composite score and each test score on the ACT® range from 1-36. The ACT® composite score is the average of the four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. For the class of 2012, average scores were:

National average = 21.1
Iowa’s average (based on 23,119 test-takers) = 22.1


Regent Admission Index: SAT®
Average Scores:


Printed from the Iowa College Student Aid Commission website on March 25, 2018 at 12:23am.