ACT vs SAT

Two common and nationally recognized tests used as an admission requirement for U.S. colleges and universities are the ACT and the SAT. Higher learning institutions do not have a preference for one test over the other. Learn the differences of the ACT vs SAT in our complete guide below.  

Both tests measure student’s proficiency in critical skill areas necessary for success in college, such as Math, English, Reading comprehension, and problem-solving. Even though both tests have the same purpose and measure the same skills, each test has its unique challenges.

Overview of the ACT

ACT stands for American College Testing, and is a standardized test that evaluates a student’s skills and comprehension level to determine how they might handle college-level courses. 

Total Time and Length of the Test

The ACT is an aptitude test which is timed. The test should normally take 2 hours and 55 minutes, with an additional 40 minutes for those students that decide to take the optional writing section. This allotment does not include break times.

Each section of the ACT is broken down further into timed sections to encourage students not to get caught up in a particularly challenging area of the test. They are as follows: 

  • English: 45 min.
  • Math: 60 min.
  • Reading: 35 min.
  • Science: 35 min.
  • Writing (optional): 40 min.

Sections and Questions

The ACT is broken into the following sections, in chronological order, and with the following amount of questions per section. All questions are multiple-choice. 

  • English: 75 questions
  • Math: 60 questions
  • Reading: 40 questions
  • Science: 40 questions
  • Writing (optional): 1 essay

OVERVIEW OF THE SAT

The SAT is a standardized test, which is used to evaluate a student’s skills and comprehension level to determine how they might handle college-level courses. 

Total Time and Length of the Test

The SAT is an aptitude test, which is timed. The test should normally take 3 hours, with an additional 50 minutes allotted to those students that take the optional essay. This allotment does not include break times.

Each section is broken into timed segments to make sure each student has an equal opportunity to complete the entire test. The segments are timed as such: 

  • Reading: 65 min.
  • Writing and Language: 35 min.
  • Math No-Calculator: 25 min.
  • Math Calculator: 55 min.
  • Essay (optional): 50 min.

Sections and Questions

The SAT is organized into sections, in chronological order, and each section contains the listed amount of questions. Most questions are multiple-choice, and there are some “grid-in” answer questions in the math section.  

  • Reading: 52 questions
  • Writing and Language: 44 questions
  • Math No-Calculator: 20 questions
  • Math Calculator: 38 questions
  • Essay (optional): 1 essay

ACT and SAT Resources

Scoring of the ACT vs SAT

  ACT  SAT 
 Basis  Four sections score on a scale of 1-36  Two sections scored on a scale of 200-800
 Sections  Reading, Writing, Math, Science Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, Math 
 Total Score  R+W+M+S / 4 = average between 1 & 36   EBRW + M = total between 400 & 1600
 Essay Score  Analytical scoring rubric between 2-12  Reading, Writing, & Analysis are each scored on a scale between 2-8 and then totaled

ACT

The ACT exam consists of four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Each section is scored using a scale of 1-36, and the average of the four sections is the total score.

The optional essay is not factored into the total score. Two readers score the essay using a scale of 1-6 based on four criteria: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Language Use & Conventions. The sub-scores of each of the four areas are then summed to a final essay score between 2-12.

SAT

The SAT exam consists of two sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing  & Math; however, the exam contains three actual tests: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. A total of 800 is provided for the scoring of each section. The scores of those sections are added together to get your total score. Test scores are scored out of 40 points each and are the basis of the section scores.

The optional essay is not factored into the total score, and its score is shown separately in the final report. Essays are scored in each of three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing on a scale of 2-8. The sub-scores are averaged to produce a final score.

HOW DO I KNOW WHICH TEST TO TAKE?

Neither the SAT nor the ACT is more challenging than the other – but each test benefits a different type of student.  Since colleges accept both the ACT and SAT, you should take the test that best reflects your strengths. 

Comparison of ACT vs SAT

SAT vs ACT

ACT vs SAT

(click on image to enlarge)

Differences between the ACT and the SAT

The ACT provides less time to answer each question. Both the SAT and the ACT test you on the same raw content in a similar manner, but the ACT gives you less time per problem to go through the same set of steps, and it bunches together the problems with fewer breaks. 

Differences in Time Per Question

   ACT  SAT
 Reading  53 Sec/Question  75 Sec/Question
 ACT English/SAT Writing  36 Sec/Question 48 Sec/Question 
 Math  60 Sec/Question

No Calculator: 75 Sec/Question

Calulator: 87 Sec/Question 

 Science  53 Sec/Question  N/A

If you don’t work well under time pressure, the ACT may be too stressful for you. 

ACT vs SAT Math

The ACT tests more advanced math but accounts for less of the total score, including trigonometry, imaginary numbers, advanced geometric shapes, and logarithms. The ACT has a big focus on geometry, which is about 35% of the ACT math questions. Trigonometry makes up about 7% of the ACT Math questions. The ACT tests trigonometry function graphs, matrices, and logarithms, while the SAT does not.

At first glance, if you are not strong in math, it would appear that you should take the SAT because it has easier math questions. However, Math accounts for 50% of your final SAT score, whereas it only accounts for 25% of your total ACT score. Why?

The ACT averages the scores of all four sections to arrive at the final score. In contrast, the SAT adds the scores of the sections together to arrive at the total. Remember that both tests look at your score relative to those of everyone else taking that test, or your percentile rank.

Example: 

SAT:  

Math: 540  (57th percentile)

EBRW: 700 (94th percentile)

Composite Score: 1240 (80th percentile)

ACT:

English: 31 (91st percentile)

Math: 27 (88th percentile)

Reading:  29 (84th percentile)

Science: 30 (94th percentile)

Composite Score: 29 ( 91st percentile)

Sources: Collegeboard and ACT

If Math is not your strength, you would likely have a better chance of getting a higher composite score taking the ACT.  

 ACT vs SAT Essays

The focus of the optional essays is different. The ACT provides you a set of three arguments and asks you to pick the best one, with a bit of reasoning for why you think it’s best.

The SAT gives you a wholly written essay and then asks you to evaluate that essay and find the evidence, the reasoning elements, and the structure.

If you do better at reading a passage and writing a Pro vs. Cons essay, then the SAT essay will be easier for you. However, if you are more of a persuasive writer, the ACT essay will appeal to you. Keep in mind that the essay options on both tests are optional.

ACT Science

The science section of the ACT is more logical reasoning than testing knowledge of science topics like biology, physics, chemistry, or geology. You will be presented with a graph, diagram, or chart and asked what you can infer from the graph or chart.

While the SAT does not have a separate science section, scientific passages that test scientific concepts are sprinkled throughout the Math and Reading sections. The ACT science section score makes up 25% of your total ACT score, whereas the SAT has no separate score for science. If your goal is to get into a science-oriented program, taking the ACT may provide you an advantage.

Review ACT and SAT Materials

Spend time getting familiar with both the ACT and SAT. Take our free ACT practice tests or SAT practice tests to get a better idea of some of the questions that may be asked on each test. Look at each section and get a sense of what types of questions and problems are presented, how the instructions are worded, and the general format. 

Keep in mind the amount of time you have to answer each question. For each question, you will need to be able to figure out what you are being asked and what information you are given to help you.

In the process of making your decision, one strategy is to take an ACT prep course or SAT prep course.  Prep courses will help you figure out what you need to focus on the most and help you get more comfortable with the exams. 

If one test appears to be more doable for you than the other, that is the one you should take. 

Once you have decided which test works best for you, you can use your efforts to study, practice, and time yourself for each section.