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  • Debra M. Shively

The SAT and the ACT tests – what’s the difference?

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Last year the US welcomed over one million international students to its colleges and universities. As part of the undergraduate application requirement for nearly all four year institutions, students need to submit a standardised test score, either the SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the American College Test, ACT, both of which are administered privately and outside of the school curriculum.

Receiving US institutions will have capabilities to interpret results from either test and there is no preference from one test over the other but you should always check with the universities to which you anticipate applying to best understand their testing policies.

We encourage students to sit and self-score a trial test for both the SAT and the ACT to identify if one test is favoured over the other. Once a preferred test is identified, we encourage students to register and sit the test - ideally in year 11. If you find you require additional test prep, we have partnered with a test prep company in the US who works closely with our students to best achieve their desired testing outcomes.

Both the SAT and the ACT have undergone a redesign in the last three years which has brought the two test more into alignment. The significant difference between the two tests is the ACT is now computer-based and the SAT continues to be paper-based. Additionally, the ACT has a separate science composite score where the SAT does not. The table below goes into further detail comparing the SAT and the ACT and following the table, further commentary.

As reflected in the table above, the ACT is a speedier test and students are required to answer more questions in a shorter amount of time. The SAT has fewer questions but is not as direct in how the questions are asked requiring familiarity to the test. Australian-educated students who have undertaken an academically challenging course load should have no trouble scoring well on either test despite coming from a different education system. And test preparation is recommended for all students, regardless of their secondary school performance.

Designated Testing Dates

The transition to computer based testing (CBT) earlier this year for the ACT has resulted in more testing date opportunities. The ACT is currently offered seven times per year internationally as outlined below. The SAT is only offered four times per year internationally but will add an additional testing date in August from 2020.

2019 – 2020 SAT and ACT Test Dates


5 October 2019 13 July 2019

7 December 2019 14 September 2019

14 March 2020 12 October 2019

2 May 2020 14 December 2019

29 August 2020 8 February 2020

4 April 2020

13 June 2020

The SAT and the ACT have become more aligned over recent years and with US universities not having a preference of one test over the other, students have the opportunity to choose. The limited SAT international testing dates may deter students based on testing date opportunities. That said, the ACT is the preferred standardised test by students in the US and the SAT is the preferred standardised test by students outside of the US. As the two tests measure much of the same content, the decision on which test to sit may now be a result of personal preference combined with test date convenience.

Internationally Educated works with students and their families on identifying and applying to US universities. Please contact us for an initial conversation.

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