SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Is the ACT Easier Than the SAT?

Posted by Laura Registrato | Jan 3, 2015 1:08:00 AM

SAT versus ACT



Because colleges accept the ACT and SAT equivalently, picking the test where you’ll perform the best is critical to your admissions chances. But when parents and students ask whether the ACT is easier than the SAT, it can be hard to find a good answer. Especially now that the SAT has been significantly revamped, students may not know how the tests compare to each other or which exam they will do better on.

There are differences between the tests that can make one or the other legitimately easier or harder for some students. So how do you know if the SAT or the ACT is easier for you? Keep reading this detailed guide for the eight key factors you need to know to decide whether the ACT or SAT is easier.

The ACT and SAT differ in a lot of ways, but only a few are really important to understanding whether the ACT or SAT is better for you. Each student is different in each of the below factors – your personal abilities will make the ACT or SAT easier, depending on your own strengths and weaknesses.

We’ve broken our analysis down into two major sections: content-related, and format-related.


Content-Related Abilities

The SAT contains three sections: Reading, Math, and Writing and Language. The ACT contains four sections: Reading, Math, English, and Science. Both also have an optional essay. Each section has a different format on the ACT compared to the SAT, but only a few differences really matter.


Factor #1: How Broad Is Your Mathematical Knowledge?

The SAT and ACT both emphasize algebra questions in their math sections; however, the ACT's Math section typically tests a wider range of mathematical concepts, such as logarithms, graphs of trig functions, and matrices, that the SAT doesn't cover.

The ACT also has significantly more questions on geometry and trigonometry than the SAT does. On the ACT's Math section, about a quarter to a third of the questions will be about geometry or trigonometry while less than 10% of the SAT's math questions will focus on either of those topics. More SAT Math questions will focus on algebra, along with some other topics like data analysis and modeling.

In addition to testing a wider range of math topics, the ACT doesn't give any formulas at the beginning of the math test, so you’ll need to have them all memorized. The SAT will give you the math formulas you need.


Questions to ask yourself:

Can I memorize all the formulas I'll need?

Do I have strong geometry and trigonometry skills?

Would I prefer to have primarily algebra-related questions?


Bottom LineIf you’re more comfortable with algebra than geometry and trigonometry, then the SAT Math section will likely be easier for you than ACT Math.


Factor #2: How Confident Are You Without a Calculator?

One of the new changes to the SAT is that students will not be allowed to have a calculator for part of the Math section. SAT Math now has two parts: No Calculator (20 questions) and Calculator (38 questions), while the ACT allows you to use a calculator for all math questions.

Every question on the No Calculator part of SAT Math is solvable by hand; however, the problems will require calculations, and if you aren't comfortable with not having a calculator to help you, this part of the SAT may be challenging for you.

Bottom Line: If you prefer having a calculator to help you solve math problems, you may find ACT Math easier.


Factor #3: Are You Comfortable With Scientific Terminology for ACT Science?

Lots of people make a big deal out of the ACT Science section, but it's not actually about science. It doesn't test much knowledge of actual information, such as freezing points or solubility rules, but it does use a lot of scientific language. It also uses charts and graphs that will be familiar to students with strong science backgrounds. 

While the SAT is now incorporating more of these concepts into its three exam sections, you'll still be answering more questions like this for the ACT.

The information below is typical of the ACT Science section:



You can answer questions about this information without knowing that Mg means magnesium, or that mol stands for the unit of measurement mole, or that ˚C means degrees Celsius. But it's a lot faster and easier if you do know these things. And because the ACT Science section factors into the ACT composite score, if you don't know Science well, the Science section can lower your overall score.

Bottom Line: Comfort with scientific terms and experience gathering scientific data from charts and graphs will give you a greater advantage on the ACT.


Factor #4: Are You Able to Remember the Location of Details in Reading Passages?

An often-overlooked aspect of whether the SAT or ACT is easier for a given student is the detail questions in the Reading sections of each test. The SAT, in short, gives the student more information to work with.

After you read about two pages of an academic book, do you tend to remember where the different pieces of information are located within the reading? Or do you need to go back over it to find a specific detail? Your answer to this question can make a difference between your SAT and ACT Reading scores.

This is because one big (and somewhat odd) difference between the SAT and the ACT is their treatment of details in the reading section. Both tests include questions about small, specific details from the readings, but the SAT will usually tells you what line they're talking about, while the ACT frequently does not. Here's a simple example from an ACT Reading section:


This kind of question (we call it "fact-finding" at PrepScholar) isn't a challenge if you have the line numbers where the information is, but during the ACT it can be difficult and time-consuming if you need to skim the passage to remember which part each question is referring to. On the SAT, most questions have a line number, and, even if they don't, the SAT Reading questions always proceed in chronological order. This means you'll have a general idea of where the key information is, even if you're not given an exact line reference.

If you easily remember where information is in a passage, these ACT questions will be a piece of cake and give you extra time for the harder ones. If you don't, ACT Reading will frustrate you and suck your precious time.

Bottom line: The ability to remember the location of details in reading will give you a greater advantage on the ACT.


Factor #5: How Easily Can You Cite Evidence For Your Answers?

One of the changes to the updated SAT is a new type of question found in the Reading section. They are known as evidence support questions. For these two-part questions, the first question will ask a standard question about the passage, and then the following question will ask the student to cite evidence that supports their first answer. Check out an example of one of these question pairs that was released by the College Board:



As you might see, these questions can be tricky because they require higher-level thinking and strong reasoning skills. If you're stuck on the first question, you likely won't get the second question right either. If you take the ACT, you won't have to worry about questions like these.

Bottom Line: If you aren’t used to finding evidence to support your reasoning, the new evidence support questions may make SAT Reading more challenging for you.


Factor #6: Which Types of Writing Questions Do You Prefer?

Some of the SAT's biggest changes occurred on its Writing section. Both the SAT and the ACT will now use passage-based questions, but the topics that those questions focus on differ between the two tests.

The ACT is slightly more focused on grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.  The ACT also includes “big picture” questions that ask about the main idea of the passage, while the SAT doesn't include these types of questions in its Writing section.

On the other hand, the SAT focuses more on questions about writing style. The SAT also includes what are known as "precision" questions that require the test-taker to select the most appropriate word. Because of precision questions and other similar questions, the SAT tends to test vocabulary more than the ACT.

Bottom Line: With the SAT's updates, the Writing sections for both tests are more similar than they were before. However, if you have a solid knowledge of grammar and sentence structure, you may find ACT English easier while if you prefer questions about writing style and vocabulary, SAT Writing may be easier for you.


Format-Related Abilities

Factor #7: Are You Able to Avoid Getting Stuck on Challenging Questions?

Especially in the Math sections of both tests and the Science section of the ACT, it's easy for many students to get wrapped up in trying to "figure out" a particularly challenging problem. This can turn into spending four to five minutes on one question and missing others as a result.

Why is this important? The ACT gives much less time per question. Below is a chart showing the time per question on both tests, for reference.



Total Time

Total Questions

Time per Question



45 minutes


36 seconds



60 minutes


60 seconds



35 minutes


53 seconds



35 minutes


53 seconds








No Calculator: 25 minutes

Calculator: 55 minutes

No Calculator: 20

Calculator: 38

No Calculator: 75 seconds

Calculator: 86 seconds



65 minutes


75 seconds



35 minutes


48 seconds


Bottom Line: The ability to move on from difficult questions will give you a greater advantage on the ACT.


Factor #8: Do You Live in a State That Requires ACT or SAT Testing?

This last one is pretty cut and dried: if your state requires you to take one test, you'll likely find that test easier. The following 16 states use the ACT as part of their statewide testing regimen: Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The following five states use the SAT as part of their statewide testing regimen: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

Having a required test can help you be more prepared for that exam. For example, if you live in a state that requires high school students to take the ACT, you'll likely receive significant in-school preparation for that exam, and your teachers will be familiar with how the ACT is formatted and what skills it tests. 

Bottom Line: Living in one of the states where the ACT or SAT is required will give you a slight advantage on that test. But if you’re committed to a serious amount of prep, you’ll get so much exposure to whichever test you choose that this initial boost won’t make a difference.


So How Do I Choose Between ACT vs SAT?

We’ve listed several important factors, and the chart below will help organize your thoughts. For each row, decide which skills are strengths or weaknesses for you.

When you’re done, tally up the strengths and weaknesses for each test. Give one point for each strength, and take away one point for each weakness. For example, if trigonometry is a strong point for you, give ACT one point. If memorizing formulas is a weakness, take away one point from ACT.

  Test Advantage Strength Weakness
Applying trigonometry and geometry skills ACT    
Answering math questions without a calculator ACT    
Memorizing formulas* ACT    
Comfort with scientific terms ACT    
Remembering locations of details in reading* ACT    
Applying grammar and punctuation skills* ACT    
Skipping over questions that take too long* ACT    
Living in one of the mandatory ACT testing states ACT    
Answering questions in chronological order SAT     
Finding evidence to support your answers* SAT    
Answering questions on writing style* SAT    
Living in one of the mandatory SAT testing states SAT    

*These skills are also helpful on the other test, just less so.

The test with the higher score may be the one for you.


What's the Best Way to Figure Out Whether to Take the ACT or SAT? 

The above are just general principles to help your thinking. In the end, the best gauge of which test fits you better is to take a full-length practice test of each and compare your scores. You can find free SAT practice tests and free ACT practice tests. We’ve also written guides on figuring out what your target SAT score and target ACT score should be.

If your practice test score for one test is higher than it is for the other in relation to your target score, you have a better shot at getting into your target colleges using that test.


What's Next?

Whether you want to take the SAT or ACT, you have to know what your target score is. Figure this out using our SAT Target Score guide and ACT Target Score Guide.

If you're aiming for a top score, you should read our guide to getting a perfect SAT score (this article works if you're taking the ACT too).

Figure out the best test dates to take the SAT or ACT and create a study schedule for yourself.


Want to improve your SAT or ACT score? Get our free guides for top tips on how to improve by 160 SAT points or 4 ACT points.

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points    Free eBook: 5 Tips to 4+ Points on the ACT


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Laura Registrato
About the Author

Laura has over a decade of teaching experience at leading universities and scored a perfect score on the SAT.

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