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SAT Math vs ACT Math: What's the Difference?

Posted by Courtney Montgomery | Oct 3, 2015 2:00:00 PM

SAT versus ACT, ACT Math, SAT Math

 

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So which is better/easier/faster--the SAT math section or the ACT math section? How does each stack up over the course of the entire test? And, most importantly, which math section is right for YOU?

We’ll break down both the similarities and differences between the SAT math vs ACT math and help you decide which standardized test suits you the best.


Test Organization

First, let us look at how each test is structured as a whole, as well as how each math section fits into that overall form.


ACT Test Organization

The ACT is broken into four sections (five, if you take ACT + writing), making for a 2 hour and 55 minute test (or a 3 hour 35 minute test), not including break times. Each topic section is taken all at once, meaning they are not broken into smaller subsections, and the topics will always appear in the same order.

The ACT math section will always be the second section on the test, and so will always be sandwiched between ACT English and ACT Reading. You will have no opportunity to come back to the math section once your time is up, so you will have to balance out your timing and strategies yourself. Even if you have an extra ten minutes left in your reading section, you cannot come back to answer more questions on the math section.

This kind of structure tends to appeal to those who can focus on one task for long stretches of time or those who like to finish tasks completely and move on. The trade-off is, of course, that you will need to be vigilant when taking the section (if, for any reason, you always get very sleepy in the second hour of taking a standardized test, there goes your entire math score!). 


SAT Test Organization

Unlike the ACT, the SAT breaks its topics into smaller subsections. The test is a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes, with the math section comprising of 70 minutes total. The SAT math section is broken up into 3 segments over the course of the entire test, though you may actually see four on the day of your test (making 95 minutes of math total).

Why might you have four math sections? The SAT always includes an “experimental” section on the test--a section that is unscored, but is designed to look just like the other sections--and this experimental section can be writing, critical reading, or math. You will not know which topic it is until you see an extra math, writing, or critical reading section on test day.

Each of the three math sections differs in terms of content and timing, but will always follow a predictable pattern. There will always be:

  • One section with 20 multiple choice questions. (Note: If there is an experimental math section on the test, it will be another 20 question multiple choice section like this one.)

  • One section with 18 questions--eight multiple choice and ten grid-in. The grid-in section is exactly how it sounds--you must generate your own answers instead of selecting your answer from a fixed set.

  • One section (always the last math section on the test) with 16 multiple choice questions.

The SAT testing structure tends to appeal to those who like to take breaks or who tend to burn out by focusing on only one topic at a time. The benefit is that you will have more chances to do well on SAT math if you’re having an “off” hour, but the drawback is that there will be more math segments on the horizon once you’ve finished with your first or second.

 

The difference between the two test structures mostly depends on how you like to test. For some people, it is challenging to switch gears and go from math to reading and vocab, and back to math again. For others, it is difficult to concentrate on one topic at a time and so do well breaking up the test categories into smaller chunks.

There is no “better” test design for everyone, just the one that appeals to you or suits you the most.


body_sameEach test will always have its own predictable structure, so there will never be any surprises.

 

Question Type

Although many of the math topics covered by the SAT math section and the math topics covered by the ACT math section are the same or similar (with some notable exceptions, which we will discuss in a moment), the way each test presents its questions is markedly differentNow that we've seen how the test is organized, let's look at the type, presentation, and phrasing of each math question on the test. 

 

ACT Math Question Types

The ACT tends to present math questions in a fairly "straightforward" manner. The questions may test you on challenging mathematical concepts, but they are not specifically designed to test your reading comprehension, nor are they set up to lure you to select bait answers. Basically, ACT math questions test how well you have memorized a particular mathematical concept, and if you can appropriately recognize and utilize it when necessary. 

Again, this is not to say that the questions are easy--many of them are quite challenging--but they are designed to test how well you know specific mathematical concepts, NOT how well you can solve a puzzle you've never seen before (or how well you can translate a paragraph of text that sets up an unusual mathematical scenario). 

For example, 

Do you know what a rational number is?

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Or,

Do you know how to find the tangent or cosine of a particular angle?

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(For answers and a step-by-step guide to how to solve these questions, check out our guide to the 21 hardest ACT questions (coming soon!))

You will not be provided with any formulas on the test, so you must have them all memorized before test day. (For a complete list, check out our guide to the 31 formulas you'll need to memorize for the ACT.) 

When compared to the SAT, the ACT covers a wider range of mathematical topics--including trigonometry and logarithms, neither of which is on the SAT--but you must only memorize a few specific rules and formulas for each topic. You will never be asked to solve completely unfamiliar or obscure problems on the ACT.

Essentially, the ACT casts a wider mathematical net than the SAT does, but each topic is covered a little more shallowly and with less obscurity overall. 

 

SAT Math Question Types

The SAT math section tends to read as part math section, part reading comprehension section. Not only are you being tested on your mathematical knowledge, but you must also figure out exactly what the question is asking you--not always an easy task with the way the questions are phrased.

For example,

You must read the full scenario before going about solving the puzzle. Do you know how to best combine your knowledge of polygons to find the solution?

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Or, 

Do you understand not only what the problem is asking, but also the fastest approach to solving it?

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(For answers and a step-by-step guide to how to solve these questions, check out our guide to the 21 hardest SAT questions (coming soon!))

You must pay particular attention to exactly what the question is asking you to answer, because there will always be bait answers waiting for anyone who found a perimeter instead of an area, or found a instead of a + b. Even if you know how to solve a math question, you may still get a question wrong if you misread it.

In terms of formulas and necessary memorization, the SAT will always give you a formula box for each math section. Though it can save you time to memorize your most important formulas, it is ultimately unnecessary, as they will always be right at your fingertips. 

When compared to the ACT, the SAT tests fewer math topics (for example, you do not need to know anything about rational numbers), but the topics covered are covered more in-depth. This means that you will see more questions on each concept, and there will be more nuance for each. For example, both the ACT and the SAT will test your knowledge of probabilities, but only the SAT will test you on combined conditional events (odds that change as things happen) or either/or probabilities. The ACT will only test you on simple probabilities, or maybe simple combined probability (not conditional). 

If the ACT casts a wider, shallower mathematical net, then the SAT casts a narrower, deeper one. 

Each test gives you a different way of looking at a problem, but again there is no “better” test for everyone. If you like to solve puzzles you've never come across before, or do well thinking on your feet and paying attention to details, then the SAT would likely be a good fit for you. If, however, you do well on tests that rely on memorization solving questions that require clear steps and process, then you would probably like the ACT math section better.

The test that suits you best depends entirely on how you like to solve puzzles and how you like to test.


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So let's talk scores (and hopefully none of us will be the throw on the top right).

 

Scoring

For both the ACT and the SAT, the balance of correct and incorrect answers gives you what we call a “raw” score, which is converted into a scaled score. Let’s break down this process and look at how each test differs.


ACT Scoring

The entire ACT math section is multiple choice with five different answer options. For each question on the ACT, you will get:

  • + 1 raw point for each correct answer

  • 0 raw points for any incorrect or blank answer

There is no penalty or negative points for wrong answers on the ACT.

Once you have a raw score, you can convert it into a scaled score out of 36. This scaled score, in turn, will show you how you rank nationally in terms of percentile, which shows how you compare to other students who took the test. (For example, if you scored in the 60th percentile, you scored better than 60% of all students who took the test, and 40% of all students received a higher score than you.)

For the details on how to find your raw score, scaled score, and percentile rank, check out our guide on how the ACT is scored and ACT percentiles and score rankings.

 

SAT Scoring 

As we saw earlier, the SAT math section is broken into a combination of multiple choice and grid-in questions. For each multiple choice question, you will receive:

  • +1 raw point for each correct answer

  • 0 raw points for any blank answer

  • -0.25 raw points for each incorrect answer

The exception for this scoring system is on the grid-in section. For each grid-in question, you will get:

  • +1 raw point for each correct answer

  • 0 points for any incorrect or blank answer.

There is no penalty for an incorrect grid-in answer.

 

Like with the ACT, the total raw score on the SAT math section gets converted into a scaled score.

This scaled score (out of 800) will, in turn, give you your percentile ranking, comparing your scaled score to everyone who took the SAT.

For the details on how to find your raw score, scaled score, and percentile rank, check out our guide on how the SAT is scored and SAT percentiles and score rankings.

 

ACT Scores and Percentiles vs SAT Scores and Percentiles

Now let's look at a side-by-side comparison of the raw, scaled, and percentile scores of both the ACT and the SAT and what percentage of the math section you must answer correctly in order to score in these zones.
 

ACT Raw Score

ACT Scaled Score

ACT Percent Questions Correct

ACT Percentiles

20

16

33%

25th percentile

29

20

48%

50th percentile

39

25

65%

75th percentile

54

32

90%

95th percentile

       

SAT Raw Score

SAT Scaled Score

SAT Percent Questions Correct

SAT Percentiles

18

440

33%

25th percentile

27

520

50%

50th percentile

38

610

70%

75th percentile

49

710

90%

95th percentile

 

As you can see, despite the differences in points and scoring, the total percentage of questions you must answer correctly is close to the same for each test. Answering 90% of the math questions correctly on both the SAT and the ACT will place you in the 95th percentile for each test, and answering 33% of them correctly will place you in the 25th percentile for each test.

The biggest difference of scoring between the two tests is in the fact that you are penalized on the SAT for answering a question incorrectly. For example, if you answered several questions wrong on the SAT, you will have to answer more than 33% of the total number of questions correctly to still score in the 25th percentile. This chart only shows the percentage of correct answers after it has been balanced over the penalties.

For more on how to strategically select your answers for each test and generate the highest score, check out our guides on how to best guess on the SAT and how to best guess on the ACT.

 

Time Per Question

Now let's look at how the timing for each test stacks up against the other.

 

ACT Timing

The ACT gives you 60 math questions to answer in 60 minutes, which gives you an average of 1 minute per question.

Remember too--the ACT also tests your mathematical stamina. The entire math section takes place at once, so you must pay strict attention to your energy levels and timing yourself and hold yourself accountable to finishing each question in 1 minute or less on average. If you run out of time part way into your math section, you will not have any further opportunities to improve your math score. 

 

SAT Timing

Two of the SAT math sections will be completely multiple choice--one 25 minute multiple choice section with 20 questions in 25 minutes, and one 20 minute multiple choice section with 16 questions in 20 minutes--both of which give you an average of 1.25 minutes per question.

The combination multiple choice and grid-in section gives you a little more time (as you must generate your own answers) with 18 questions in 25 minutes. This gives you an average of 1.4 minutes per question.

SAT gives you a little more time per question, but you will also be penalized for wrong answers, so you must take this extra time to decide which questions to answer and which to leave blank. 

 

body_pocket_watch"And so the problem remained; lots of people were mean, and most were miserable, even the ones with digital watches." - Douglas Adams 
(Probably because digital watches are not recommended for the SAT or ACT!)

 

To Sum it Up

To more easily see the two tests compared side-by-side, let us recap.

The ACT math section:

  • Has 11% more questions than the SAT does (60 to 54)

  • Is only one section, so is not broken up over the course of the entire test

  • Gives you an average of 1 minute per question

  • Does NOT issue a wrong-answer penalty

  • Is entirely multiple choice

  • Will NOT provide you with any formulas

  • Tests a wider variety of math topics than does the SAT, but not as "deeply"

  • Phrases the majority of questions in a more “straightforward” way than does the SAT

 

The SAT math section:

  • Has fewer questions overall than the ACT math section does (54 to 60)

  • Is broken up into 3 segments

  • Gives you an average of between 1.25 and 1.4 minutes per question (depending on the subsection)

  • Issues a -0.25 point penalty for any missed multiple choice question

  • Has a combination of multiple choice and fill-in questions

  • Will provide a formula box

  • Tests fewer math topics, but goes more "in-depth" on each topic.

  • Often phrases questions in convoluted or purposefully confusing ways--ways that are designed to trip up students who are going too quickly or not reading carefully.

 

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Everyone will weigh their pros and cons differently. Don't judge your scale against anyone else's--your choice is ultimately up to you.

 

Which Test is Better for YOU?

Unfortunately you won’t know which test you like better or which test suits your strengths the most unless you actually sit down and take a practice test of each (you can find free practice SAT tests and free practice ACT tests online). Take each complete test with the proper timing rules and then score your results (SAT scoring guides and ACT scoring guides).

If the difference in your scores is more than 100 scaled points, you have a clear front-runner. If not, go with your gut or whichever test felt most comfortable. Colleges do NOT prefer one test over the other, so the choice is completely dependent on how you like to test.

Although it may sound extreme to take two 3+ hour tests in your free time, it is well worth it to find the right test for you. Think of it this way--If you’re going to dedicate the necessary hours to succeed (and we recommend you study approximately 40 hours total), you may as well spend the first few of them figuring out which test you feel most comfortable with. It would certainly be a waste of your time and effort if you spend 40 hours studying for the ACT and then decided that you think you actually like the SAT better

Taking a real practice test will also help you set realistic study and scoring goals and help you figure out how to make the best use of your time taking the test. Once you find your current raw score and scaled scores, you can set realistic goal milestones until you get your score to where you want it to be. 

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If your standardized test of choice is your big boss fight, it's best to pick the one you can soundly thrash. 

 

The Take-Aways

Again, there is no one true “better” test, only the test that fits you and your strengths the best. Once you take a practice test for both the ACT and the SAT and examine your scores and your feelings while taking each, you will be able to much more clearly decide how you want to proceed.

Finally, remember that you must weigh the pros and cons of each math section against the entire test as a whole. If you like the SAT math section best, but do much better on the ACT as a whole, then you must make the decision whether your comfort and score on the math section is more important than your score on the entire test.

Standardized testing is all about balance, so you must weigh your pros and cons carefully. And once you do, only practice and diligence will help you to strike that perfect balance and achieve your greatest testing potential.


What’s Next?

Want to compare the ACT vs the SAT across the whole test? Check out our complete ACT vs SAT guide

Ready to make a study plan? First figure out how long you should study for the ACT and how long you should study for the SAT

Running out of time on the ACT or SAT math section? If you took a practice test and ran short on time, check out how stop running out of time on ACT math and how to stop running out of time on SAT math.

Looking to get a perfect score? Our guides to getting a 36 on ACT math and getting an 800 on SAT math (both written by a perfect-scorer!) will help get you where you need to be. 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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

 

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Courtney Montgomery
About the Author

Courtney scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about bringing education and the tools to succeed to students from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she believes open education is one of the great societal equalizers. She has years of tutoring experience and writes creative works in her free time.



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