What is SAT, ACT and AP?

High school students require SAT, ACT or AP test scores for college admissions and more. Understanding key details about these tests will allow students to focus their efforts on meeting these college goals.

SAT and ACT are used for college admissions whereas AP enables students to skip introductory college courses. AP tests indicate proficiency in specific subject areas at the college level. When a student scores well in these tests, it indicates to colleges that the student has the capability to be successful in college.

Also, an in-depth understanding of these tests and their differences will make it easier for students to do well in these tests.

What is SAT, ACT and AP?

SAT stands for Scholastic Assessment Test, ACT stands for American College Testing, and AP stands for Advanced Placement.

SAT and ACT tests are easier and less complex than the AP tests. This is one reason why AP tests can also be used to earn college credits or to skip introductory courses in those subjects at many leading US colleges.

The General SAT tests and ACT test scores indicate the level of college readiness in reading, writing, basic math and logical reasoning.

Colleges do not offer any college credits for students completing the SAT or ACT tests. But these tests are very helpful for gaining college admissions at many colleges in North America.

The SAT test is popular both in the US and internationally, whereas the ACT tests are popular within the US.

AP or Advanced Placement tests are taken by many students in the US and has recently grown in popularity worldwide.

Good AP scores are often used to gain admission into top US colleges and for starting advanced courses in college much sooner by skipping the introductory courses.

Though the SAT and ACT are much easier than the AP tests, AP scores can also earn you college credits at these collegesOpens in a new tab. and many more.

Which test is better SAT or ACT?

Though both SAT and ACT tests are suitable for college admissions, SAT are more popular worldwide. There are also more readily available study materials for the SAT.

An advantage of ACT is that students can improve scores by re-taking just the individual sections of ACT such as only the Math portion, Reading, Writing or Science.

As for SAT, re-testing will require students to re-write the entire test and not just individual sections.

How can students prepare for the SAT and ACT early on?

PSAT tests are typically taken by 10th and 11th graders as preparation for the SAT. For ACT preparation, the preACT can be taken by 10th graders and ASPIRE tests are suitable for 3rd to 10th graders.

Practice tests for the PSAT can be found hereOpens in a new tab. in College Board. There are also Princeton Review and other PSAT practice guides available on Amazon.

For the ACT Aspire, these are administered by select schools and test centers and you can contact your school directly about this. Practice guidesOpens in a new tab. for ACT Aspire are available from Lumos learning and more free practice tests can be found on the Lumos learning websiteOpens in a new tab..

Is the ACT or SAT more difficult?

It is likely that some students will prefer the ACT and others will prefer the SAT. Still others may be ok with both the ACT and the SAT.

For the English, SAT focuses more on writing style and vocabulary, whereas ACT focuses on grammar and punctuation.

If you’re ok with doing some numeric calculations by hand and are comfortable with algebra, SAT will be a good fit for you.

But if you always prefer having a calculator for all tests but are comfortable with geometry and trigonometry questions, ACT will be a better fit for you.

More on the ACT-SAT comparison can be found here on ACT.org.

Do you need both ACT and SAT?

Most colleges will require either your SAT scores, or ACT scores, but not both.

So if you prefer one test over the other, it’s alright to take just one of these tests.

But if you feel you’re equally comfortable with both the tests, it is advantageous to take both the tests for the following reasons:

1) Preparing for both tests will help you double up on your test preparation, especially since both tests will cover many similar topics.

2) In case you score better in one of the tests, taking both tests will allow you to present the one with your best test scores.

What is the difference between AP and SAT?

AP consists of individual subject tests whereas the SAT test covers Math, Reading and Writing all in one single test.

The AP Subject exams test a student’s college-level understanding of a specific subject. SAT Subject exams have been discontinued as of June 2021 and students are required to take the AP tests instead to indicate proficiency in individual subjects.

Which is harder SAT Subject Test or AP?

For high school graduates, since AP tests college-level material and SAT tests high school material, the AP tests are generally harder. SAT Subject tests have been discontinued in 2021 and are no longer available.

Preparing for AP tests will require students to take special AP classes while in high school. The AP classes are generally facilitated by the students’ high school but are much more complex than high school courses.

Do colleges prefer ACT or SAT?

Colleges accept any one of these tests, namely ACT or SAT for student admissions. Colleges do not have any preference for one of these tests over the other, and all is good as long as the student has a good score on either one of these tests.

As of 2020-21, are colleges requiring SAT or ACT for admissions?

The University of California has done awayOpens in a new tab. with the requirement for SAT or ACT test scores for 2021, 2022 and 2023. Many others have discontinued this requirement for 2021 due to test closures as a result of the pandemic.

The list of collegesOpens in a new tab. that do not require SAT or ACT for 2021 admissions include Boston University, University of Washington, Northeastern University among a total of about 51 or more universities.

Before taking any college prep tests and before applying to colleges, be sure to check with them directly on whether they are waiving the testing requirements for 2021 and beyond.

How Do Students Prepare for SAT and ACT and AP?

ACT & SAT Practice and Preparation

  • For free test preparation for the SAT and additional ACT information, Khan AcademyOpens in a new tab. is a great first step. Khan Academy will help you build the foundational knowhow for performing well in the SAT.

  • Khan Academy also provides personalized SAT practice tests in collaboration with the College Board.

  • Princeton Review has a self-paced course for SAT and ACT prep for a low cost of $299. This provides 280+ lessons, 10 hours of on-demand tutoring and 3200+ practice test questions.

AP Classes and Preparation

  • The College Board hosts an AP Classroom channelOpens in a new tab. on YouTube for many of the AP tests. These will provide many video lesson on AP related topics from AP tutors and professors. These video lessons and more resources are also available by registering on the college board site for the AP classroomOpens in a new tab..

  • edXOpens in a new tab. has about 14+ free AP courses for AP exam preparation. Each course is for a fixed duration and requires between 2 to 5 hours of study per week for many months.

  • Princeton ReviewOpens in a new tab. has a cram course for 5 common AP exams with test preparation that includes a complete test content review, complete practice tests and more.

SAT, AP and ACT Books

Official study guides with multiple practice tests are available for the SAT and ACT. Individual AP subject guides are available for the AP with a complete content review and 4 or more practice tests.

My Favorite Books

What Are Good Scores For SAT, AP and ACT?

  • The General SAT score is in the range of 400 to 1600. 200 to 800 for the English reading writing, and the other 200 to 800 covers the Math portion of the test.

  • A score at or above 1200 is considered a good score for the general SAT. However, individual colleges have their own acceptable SAT scores which depends on the competitiveness of its student applicants.

  • There used to be an optional essay portion for the general SAT until June 2021 but that has been discontinued and the SAT only has the multiple choice test moving forward.

  • AP tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, whereas the AP classes are given a letter grade such as A or B and so on. College admissions staff may also review the student’s AP class grades in addition to their AP test scores.

  • A score of 4 or 5 is considered a good score for an AP subject exam.

  • For the ACT, each of the Math, Science, English and Reading are given a score from 1 to 36. Then an average of all these scores is taken which again ranges from 1 to 36.

  • Any score at of above 21 is considered a good ACT score.

  • The optional writing essay score ranges from 2 to 12. A score at or above 8 is considered good for the optional essay writing.

SAT AP ACT Test Dates and Registration

  • SAT (General) test is the most popular and is generally conducted over five times a yearOpens in a new tab..

  • AP ExamsOpens in a new tab. are conducted for a 2-week period in May/June every year.

  • Since 2020, AP tests can be taken either at a regular test location or at home (online).

  • ACT tests are conducted several times a year and students can register for their ACT hereOpens in a new tab..

  • In addition to the general ACT test administration, individual school districts, states and colleges may proctor the ACT on their campus. It’s best to contact your schools directly for the additional ACT testing dates.

  • SAT Subject tests as of June 2021Opens in a new tab. have been discontinued both in the US and internationally.

AP Classroom and How It Works

AP classes are conducted by many high schools nationwide in the US and this helps students to prepare for the AP exams. The material taught in AP are at a level suitable for college courses and they are therefore eligible for earning college credits.

For students who do not have access to AP classes in high school, online AP classes are a good option. These online classesOpens in a new tab. are available by registering as an AP student on the College Board.

A dedicated YouTube channelOpens in a new tab. is also available for anyone interested in taking online AP classes.

Online AP classes are also hosted for free on edX which are administered by some leading US universities such as Berkeley.

SAT and ACT: An In-depth Comparison


Here is a description and comparison of the SAT (General test) and the ACT :




College Admissions

College Admissions


SAT Official site

ACT Official site


College BoardOpens in a new tab.

ACT OrganizationOpens in a new tab.





To verify college readiness with regard to English, basic Math, logical reasoning and writing skills

To verify college readiness with regard to English, basic Math, logical reasoning and writing skills


2.2 million students

1.8 million students


Requires numeric calculations without calculator

Requires knowledge of geometry and trigonometry


Optional essay (1.4 million students)

Optional essay (788k students)


Main Test: $49.50,

Optional Essay: $64.50

Main Test: $55,

Optional Essay: $70


PSAT tests (for SAT prep)



1) Main Test: 3 HRS,

2) Essay: 50 mins

1) Main Test: 2 HRS 55 mins,

2) Essay: 40 mins


154 questions

Reading – 65 mins,

Writing – 35 mins,

Math – 80 mins,

Science (all through the test)

215 questions

Reading – 35 mins,

Writing – 45 mins,

Math – 60 mins,

Science – 35 mins


Test offered in the USOpens in a new tab. and abroadOpens in a new tab. about 7 times a year

Over 5 times a year in the USOpens in a new tab. and abroadOpens in a new tab., including in June, July, September and October


Test centers are available all over the US and in many cities worldwide

Many test centers all across the US, along with fewer international test centers


SAT is more popular and there are more well-known resources for the study and practice of SAT tests

Getting a 5 (perfect score) on the ACT is certainly doable for sincere students


Getting a perfect score on the SAT is extremely difficult (nearly impossible)

ACT tests are not as much known internationally as the SAT


Official SAT Study GuideOpens in a new tab. from College Board

Official ACT Preparation BookOpens in a new tab. on Amazon


Khan AcademyOpens in a new tab. is a great source for free SAT online training

ACT AcademyOpens in a new tab. offers free online training


1) College Board’s full-length SAT Practice TestsOpens in a new tab.

2) Khan Academy’s Official SAT PracticeOpens in a new tab.

1) Study.com: Free ACT Practice TestOpens in a new tab.

2) Test-Guide.comOpens in a new tab. provides many free ACT Practice Tests









2-8 points for each of reading, writing and analysis

Final score of 2-12 by averaging four category-scores



Can choose to send highest scores to colleges upon second-time test taking.

Research shows better scores on second or multiple aOpens in a new tab.ttemptOpens in a new tab.sOpens in a new tab. on the SAT test.


Can re-take Opens in a new tab.(in digital format)Opens in a new tab. individual sections such as English, Math, Science or Reading.

Analysis of AP Tests

Here is a detailed analysis and comparison of the AP Subject Tests:



To skip introductory college courses (for college credits)


1) Main APOpens in a new tab. CollegeBoard site

2) AP CoursesOpens in a new tab.: Arts, Science, Math, Social Sciences and more


College BoardOpens in a new tab.




Typically for skipping introductory college courses, but 4+ AP scores also look good in college applications


38 subject tests including in Music & Arts, English, Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences & Languages and Cultures


Popular in many US high schools and internationally with 2.8 million test takers


Test is based on college level knowledge


$95 per AP subject test


Students typically prepare for AP tests by opting for specific AP classes in high school




About 2- 3 hours per test

As of 2021, the AP test can be taken at school digitally or with paper-and-pencil, or from home on a computer


1st part is multiple-choice questions with 1 answer out of 4 or 5 choices.

The 2nd part is a free choice answer, either an essay, or a solution to a problem and so on.


AP tests are conducted once a year typically in the month of May.

Different AP subject tests are conducted on separate test dates in May.


AP tests are offered at many of the high schools in the US that offer AP classes.

There are also international test centers in many cities worldwide.


1) Can earn students college credits or advanced standing in college

2) A score of 4 or 5 in two or more AP tests can boost a student’s college application and many top colleges are impressed by good AP scores.


1) AP tests require intense college-level study while the student is still in high school.

So it requires careful and focused preparation over a longer term.


ACT Official Test Opens in a new tab.GuideOpens in a new tab.


1) Free AP Courses at edXOpens in a new tab.

2) Advanced Placement YouTube Video LecturesOpens in a new tab.Of all the tests, the AP subject tests are the only ones that can directly offer college-level credits for high school students.


Free AP PracticeOpens in a new tab. Tests



1 – 5


4 or 5



College Board typically recommends 2 attempts on SAT for a good score.

Students can request that only the highest scores be reportedOpens in a new tab. to colleges

Choosing Between SAT, ACT and AP

For many colleges in North America, good SAT or ACT scores are extremely important for admissions. Of all the tests, the AP subject tests are the only ones that can directly offer college-level credits for high school students. SAT tests can be taken many times a year whereas AP tests are offered only once a year in the month of May.

High school students who are more comfortable with Math and Science prefer the SAT and most other students with good English writing and verbal skills prefer the ACT.

SAT is the more popular of the two and is recognized worldwide with widespread availability of many learning resources.

Since different colleges prefer one test versus the other, many students write multiple of these tests. For example, a student might write both the SAT and ACT test to meet the admission requirements at different colleges.

As such there is no restriction as to which combination of tests students choose to write. However, the student also needs to do careful planning to prepare for the exams. So for best scores, it’s worth figuring out which tests are favorable to you and then to practice and write only your preferred tests.

You can also work early-on in figuring out which colleges you are targeting so you can choose the tests that your chosen colleges require for admissions.

If you want to save time and money during college, writing the AP Subject exams can be hugely beneficial. Good AP scores can help you skip the lower-level college courses thereby saving you time and money.

However, AP exams are the toughest of these exams and will require you to gain a higher level of understanding on par with introductory college courses.

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What is SAT?

Students all over the world compete for a place in a college or university of their choice. Colleges use a variety of tests and criteria for selecting the best candidates with the greatest likelihood...

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