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ACT vs. SAT: Which Exam is Right for You?

One of the biggest decisions for high school students is whether to take the ACT or the SAT. Our team goes over the difference between the ACT and SAT below.

Both exams are used by colleges and universities during the college admissions process. Compare the length, content, cost, and other factors of these 2 standardized exams below.

Summary: Compare the ACT vs SAT below. If you want to begin your prep, consider using a SAT prep course or an ACT prep course.

Biggest Differences Between the ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT cover the same general topics and are both used by colleges and universities during the college admissions process.

Both exam scores can also be used by colleges to award merit-based scholarships. It is important to note that neither the ACT or SAT is harder and that many colleges do not prefer one test or the other.

But what is the difference between the ACT and SAT? We will review the biggest differences below.

1. Format of Exams

The ACT is 3 hours and 40 minutes long and includes 4 sections and an optional essay section. The SAT is 3 hours long and includes 3 sections.

Reading40 Questions. 35 Minutes52 Questions. 65 Minutes
English / Writing & Language75 Questions. 45 Minutes44 Questions. 35 Minutes
Math (Calculator)60 Questions. 60 Minutes38 Questions. 55 Minutes
Math (No Calculator)No Section20 Questions. 25 Minutes
Science40 Questions. 35 MinutesNo Section
Essay (Optional)1 Essay. 40 MinutesNo Section
Total Questions and Time

215 Questions + Essay

2 Hours 55 Minutes or 3 Hours 35 Minutes (Essay)

154 Questions

3 Hours

2. Timing

SectionACT (Time Per Question)SAT (Time Per Question)
Reading53 Seconds / Question75 Seconds / Question
English / Writing and Language36 Seconds / Question48 Seconds / Question
Math (Calculator)60 Seconds / Question87 Seconds / Question
Math (No Calculator)N/A75 Seconds / Question
Science53 Seconds / QuestionN/A
Average Time49 Seconds / Question70 Seconds / Question

On average, you will have 49 seconds per question on the ACT. You will have about 70 seconds per question on the SAT.

If you get nervous when taking standardized exams and want to have a little more time per question, the SAT may be your best bet.

If you want to prepare for your upcoming exam, visit our ACT practice test home or SAT practice test home.

3. Use of Calculators

The ACT and SAT differ on their use of calculator and how they go about this. On the ACT, there is 1 math section. You can use your calculator for the whole section.

On the SAT, there are 2 math sections. On one math section you will be permitted to use a calculator. On the other math section, you will not be allowed to.

If you prefer to solve questions with a calculator and are uncomfortable with mental math, you may prefer to take the ACT.

4. Scoring

A big difference between the ACT and SAT is how the 2 exams are scored. They are scored on 2 completely different scales.

BasisFour sections scored on a scale of 1-36Two sections scored on a scale of 200-800
SectionsReading, Writing, Math, ScienceEvidence-Based Reading & Writing, Math
Total ScoreR+W+M+S / 4 = average between 1 & 36EBRW + M = total between 400 & 1600
Essay ScoreAnalytical scoring rubric between 2-12N/A

To Calculate Your ACT Score: Reading + Writing + Math + Science / 4

To Calculate Your SAT Score: EBRW Score + Math Score

For more information on scores, visit our ACT scores or SAT scores guides.

5. Essays

Another huge difference between the ACT and SAT is the optional essay. The ACT has an optional essay while the SAT does not offer an essay at all.

The SAT used to offer an essay, but in 2021, they got rid of it all together. If you are looking to show off your writing skills, you will need to take the ACT.

The ACT optional essay is scored on a scale from 2-12. You will have 40 minutes to respond to an essay prompt given to you.

Is the ACT or SAT Easier?

Both exams test individuals on the same core concepts. Both exams are very similar in terms of general difficulty. With that being said, some students may find that one exam is easier than the other.

The difficulty of the exams will depend on you as an individual. If you excel in math, you may find the SAT a tad bit easier due to math accounting for 50% of the composite score,

Review the section below to determine with exam is right for you.

Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

The ACT and SAT are surprisingly similar exams. Most colleges do not have a preference between the two exams. Both exams can also be used to receive merit-based scholarships.

With that being said, there are some subtle differences between the two exams. Some reasons to take each exam are listed below:

Reasons to Take the ACT

  • You want to write an essay: The ACT offers an essay while the SAT does not. If writing is a strong suit of yours and you want to show it off, the ACT is a good option.
  • You struggle with mental math: If you struggle with mental math, the ACT may be a good option for you. You are permitted to use a calculator on all math questions for the ACT.

Reasons to Take the SAT

  • You struggle with timing: The SAT offers more time per question. You will have about 70 seconds per question when taking the SAT versus 49 seconds per question on the ACT.
  • You excel in math: Math accounts for 50% of your score on the SAT versus only 25% of your score on the ACT.

A good way to test out which test is better for you is to take an ACT practice test or SAT practice test. Take both exams and see which one you do better on. This will help you determine whether to take the ACT or SAT.




One exam is not better than the other. Colleges will accept either exam and many colleges do not have a preference.

The biggest thing is to decide which exam better fits your skillset and needs. Some students prefer to take the ACT while others prefer the SAT.

Both exams offer math sections. The ACT offers 1 math section that is 60 minutes long. You will be permitted to use a calculator for the whole section.

The SAT offers 2 separate math sections. The SAT math (calculator) section has 38 questions and is 55 minutes long. The SAT math (no calculator) section has 20 questions and is 25 minutes long.

SAT math accounts for 50% of your composite score while ACT math accounts for only 25% of your score.

Technically, the math is not harder on one exam versus the other. The no calculator section may throw some students off on the SAT.

Also, the SAT more heavily weighting the math section could play a factor in some student’s decisions to take one exam or the other.

No, many colleges and universities do not prefer one exam over the other.

Official ACT and SAT Resources

Adam Groden
Adam is our ACT and SAT expert. He has 30+ years of experience and runs his own test prep company.