ACT vs SAT

Many students are curious whether they should take the ACT or the SAT. We will review the ACT vs SAT in this guide to help you learn about the similarities and differences. 

Both exams are used by colleges and universities across the country to help detemine who should gain admission to their institutions. Each exam has various pros and cons that we will review below.

Summary: Review the ACT vs SAT and find out which exam you should take. 

ACT vs SAT

  ACT SAT
Test Sections Math
Reading
Science
English
Essay (Optional)
Math
Reading
Writing & Language
Essay (Optional)
Time 3 Hours 40 Minutes (Essay)
2 Hours 55 Minutes (No Essay)
3 Hours 50 Mintes (Essay)
3 Hours (No Essay)
Scoring Scale of 1-36 Scale of 400-1600
Math Concepts Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Probability, and Statistics Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Data Analysis 
Calculators Yes One math section allows for a calculator while the other math section does not
Reading 4 Reading Passages 5 Reading Passages
Science 1 section. Tests your reading and critical thinking skills, not specific science knowledge. None.
Prep Options Best ACT Prep Courses Best SAT Prep Courses

ACT vs SAT - Sections

Sections ACT
Math 60 Questions
Reading 40 Questions
Science 40 Questions
English 75 Questions
Essay 1 Essay (Optional)
Sections SAT
Math (Calculator) 38 Questions
Math (No Calculator) 20 Questions
Reading 52 Questions
Writing & Language 44 Questions
Essay 1 Essay (Optional)

ACT vs SAT - Timing

Sections ACT Time/Question
Math 60 Minutes 60 Sec/Question
Reading 35 Minutes 53 Sec/Question
Science 35 Minutes 53 Sec/Question
English 45 Minutes 36 Sec/Question
Essay 40 Minutes N/A
Sections SAT Time/Question
Math (Calculator) 55 Minutes 87 Sec/Question
Math (No Calculator) 25 Minutes 75 Sec/Question
Reading 65 Minutes 75 Sec/Question
Writing & Language 35 Minutes 48 Sec/Question
Essay 50 Minutes N/A

ACT vs SAT - Scoring

  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 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 consists of two sections in terms of scoring: 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.

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. 

If you don’t work well under time pressure, the ACT may not be your best option. As you can see in the table above, students will have more time per question on the SAT vs ACT. 

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.

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 Pros 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.

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. 

ACT vs SAT

(click on image to enlarge)

ACT and SAT Resources

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.

Disclaimer: Not affiliated with or endorsed by ACT, Inc. ACT is a registered trademark of ACT, Inc. and is used here solely for purposes of identification.

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