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SAT vs ACT Math: Which is Easier?

Posted by Courtney Montgomery | Nov 8, 2015 6:30:00 PM

SAT versus ACT, ACT Math, SAT Math



If you put to a vote which math test is easier, the ACT or the SAT, there is going to be heavy contention on both sides. Some will swear up and down (and sideways) that the SAT math section is easier. Others will not be moved by any force in the world away from the position that the ACT math section is the simpler one.

But which faction is right? And more importantly, which test should you take? We’ve broken down the ins and outs of each math test to tell you which is easier, depending on the type of test-taker and math student you are.


SAT and ACT Math Basics

Though there are more similarities than not between the ACT math test and the SAT math test, there are still distinct differences in the structure, content, and timing of each test. And these differences are what make many people favor one math test over the other. In this section, we'll break down the basics of the style and content of each test. In the next section, we'll compare the two tests in more detail side-by-side, with the pros and cons for each.


Style of the Tests

While the tests are, of course, both math tests, each has its own distinct "flavor" and testing style. In this case, the "style" of the test includes the pacing of each test, the way the questions are phrased, and what each test sets out to measure. 

At the most basic level, the ACT math section is set up to test how well you’ve retained your mathematical knowledge up to this point in your academic career. It also does this on a rapid timetable to make it a little more challenging. The questions will be a mixture of scenario ("Mary has 12 apples...") and non-scenario ("Solve for x."), but each problem is designed to be as clear and straightforward as possible. The goal is to test you on the math concept at hand more than anything else—do you know how to solve it or don't you?

The SAT, on the other hand, is designed to test both your accumulated mathematical knowledge as well as how well you can apply this knowledge to new mathematical scenarios. The test is slower (meaning you have more time per question than you do on the ACT), and generally requires you to have a higher level of reading comprehension. The questions will be a mixture of scenario and non-scenario as well as straightforward and "tricky"—in general, questions at the beginning of each section will be straightforward, while questions at the end of the section will require more creative mathematical thinking and attention to detail. 

Though, both tests are, at their core, a test of your math skills, their styles are noticeably distinct. 


Content of the Tests

Now that we've talked a little about the style and presentation of the tests, let's talk about the math content each test covers. 

Both tests are designed to measure the mathematical skill levels of millions of students each year, each of whom comes from a different background and brings different strengths to the table. This means that each test must be challenging for the vast majority of students (after all, if everyone got 100% of the questions right, it wouldn't do much to indicate individual skill level, would it?). Some of this challenge comes from the style of the test, as we saw earlier, and the rest comes from the content of each test. 

The ACT covers a wider range of mathematical content than the SAT, including algebra, plane and coordinate geometry, pre-calculus (including logarithms, rational numbers, complex numbers, and polynomials), and trigonometry. It's a good idea to take the ACT only during or after taking a class that covers pre-calculus and/or trig (or at least taken a stab at learning the subjects on your own).

It is also important to note that you will not be given a formula box on the ACT, so you will have to memorize every formula you'll need.

The SAT covers a much narrower mathematical subject range than the ACT, limited to algebra and plane/coordinate geometry alone. You will never see trigonometry questions on the SAT and can realistically do quite well on the test without taking a pre-calculus class (though, of course, the more math classes you take in school, the better prepared you'll be for any standardized math test). You will also be given a formula box. 

But while the math content of the SAT is less extensive, each concept is tested in more detail and in new and creative ways. For example, you might have 2 questions on slopes for the ACT, but 5 or 6 slope questions—each of which will test you on a more nuanced facet on the subject—on the SAT.



Naughty-nice list, pros and cons...basically the same thing, right?


ACT vs. SAT: Pros and Cons

So we’ve looked at the basics for each test, but how to do you weigh in on the pros and cons for each? Let’s take a look.


Aptitude vs. Achievement

Whether or not you agree that the tests achieve what they were set up to measure, each test was designed with a specific purpose in mind.

The SAT was designed to test the aptitude of a student—basically, one’s raw potential. How well do you solve puzzles? How well can you incorporate and use new information? Though you can (and absolutely should!) study for the SAT, the test was designed to measure a student’s ability to reason. 

The ACT, on the other hand, was designed as a test of achievement. How well have you learned a topic? Can you prove that mastery on paper? In this way, the ACT is more like the tests you take in school: learn a topic, turn around and take a test to illustrate that you’ve mastered it.

Now, again, it can be argued that the tests are more alike than they are different when it comes to reflecting student ability (as well as other factors), but this is how they were set up and designed, and so some of these values still hold true.

(Special note: the New SAT is making more of a transition towards testing student achievement, much like the ACT. This means that the two tests will soon have less variation on this measure than they do now.)


Reading Comprehension vs. Trigonometry

The SAT math section is like a cross between a math test and a reading test. To solve each SAT math question, you must first break down exactly what the question is asking you to find (often trickier than it sounds!) and then use your mathematical know-how to find that information.

The ACT math section is more “straightforward” and will generally only ask you to demonstrate your existing knowledge in exactly the same way the math tests you take in school do. The drawback is that you must have a wider range of math knowledge going into the test. If you don’t know trigonometry or logarithms (and if you haven't memorized your formulas), then you will miss questions on a significant chunk of the test.


Trickier Questions vs. Time Crunch

Many SAT questions in the medium and high difficulty range are designed to make students who aren’t paying attention fall into mathematical traps and choose bait answers. If you have familiarized yourself with the types of questions the SAT asks, you will often be able to dodge these metaphorical pitfalls, but it’s not always easy.

To balance this out, you will have 1.25-1.4 minutes to answer each math question (depending on the section). This is to give each student long enough to both answer the question and double-check the work, but always keep in mind that everyone’s test-taking pace is different.

The ACT math questions are, again, more direct and are not designed to trick you, though this does not mean they are easy. You must also answer more questions in a shorter amount of time to make up for the benefit of more straightforward questions. You will only have an average of 1 minute per each ACT math question, which means you only have 70% as much time to answer each question as you do on most SAT math questions.


Multiple Short Sections vs. All at Once

Some people thrive on getting tasks done all at once, while others need breaks between subjects. How you test utterly depends on you.

The SAT breaks up each of its three topics—writing, critical reading, and math—into multiple sections and scatters them throughout the whole test. You will never have to focus on one topic for more than 25 minutes at a stretch on the SAT. This can be a great gift for people who need to vary up their routine or who run out of steam in the long-term, but can be distracting for others who have trouble switching focus from topic to topic and back again.

The ACT tests each of its four (or five) subjects—reading, math, English, science, and optional writing—individually and completely. The subjects are not broken up and scattered, but are arranged in order and must be completed one at a time. The ACT math test is a full 60 minutes and takes place all at once, which is good for anyone who likes to get tasks completed and out of the way, but may be exhausting for others.


Leaving Blank Answers vs. Strategically Guessing

The SAT penalizes random guessing by issuing a -0.25 point penalty for any wrong answer. If you can eliminate answer choices, your best bet is to guess (how-to guide coming soon!), but if you cannot, then you're better off leaving the answer blank.

This point penalty can also be a huge blow to your score if you are not careful about selecting your answer choices. Remember that many questions in the medium and high difficulty section on the SAT are engineered to make students make “careless errors.” These errors include finding the wrong value (e.g., finding x instead of 2x), stopping solving a math problem too soon, or performing a mathematical function the wrong number of times. Often, you will see "bait" answers in the answer choices that correspond with these mistakes. This means that you should always be as sure as you can be about your answer choices before you make your final decision, especially in the "medium" and "high difficulty" range.

(Note: the questions are in ascending order of difficulty and this resets for the grid-in. So the "high difficulty" range on the SAT is in the last several problems of each math section, and in the multiple choice questions right before the grid-in questions begin.)

The ACT, on the other hand, does NOT issue a point penalty for guessing or wrong answers. If you can eliminate answer choices, great! If not, it’s still fine! Always make a guess on an ACT question and never leave a question blank.

Hearing this, it may seem that the ACT is easier than the SAT—after all, why be penalized when you don’t have to be?—but remember that the test is also curved across all students who take the test. So it might be the case that you as an individual will lose fewer points on the ACT because there is no guessing penalty, but it will be the same for everyone else as well. In the end, the curve is about the same whether your guessing is penalized or not, so your best option for either test is to eliminate answer choices where you can and guess with as much strategy as possible.

For more on how to guess questions on the SAT and ACT, check out our guides here (coming soon!).


body_happy_sadThough we can't promise you'll be entirely "happy" taking either test, you will likely have a preference for one over the other.


So Which Test is Best for You?

So what it all comes down to is what test should you take? Unfortunately, the only way you will truly be able to determine which test is better for you is to sit down and take each one. If you're going to dedicate the recommended amount of time to studying (about 40 hours is a good rule of thumb) for your standardized test of choice, you may as well start by finding the right test for you. After all, how awful would it be to spend 30 hours studying for the ACT only to discover that you like the SAT better, or vice versa?

So check out where to find real, free practice tests online for both the ACT and the SAT and carve out some time (on separate days!) to take each one.

But if you’re truly determined to only take one test, or if you simply want to know where to start first, take a look below. Be honest with yourself about your mathematical strengths and weaknesses and find the test that you feel you can soundly conquer.

Type of Math Student



Does well on math tests in school

Is good at memorizing mathematical concepts


Is good at solving new puzzles


Works well at a fast pace


Is good at paying attention to details


Does well on reading comprehension


Doesn’t get bored or tired easily


Has taken pre-calculus and/or trigonometry


Likes to switch focus from topic to topic


The Take-Aways

Both the ACT and the SAT are entirely trainable, and you will be able to build up your scores no matter where you start. So take a look at each one and find the one that is most comfortable for you, both in terms of the math and in terms of the overall test.

Different people have different strengths and weaknesses, so don’t worry about what anyone else says is “easiest” or “best.” Colleges have no preference whatsoever anymore for which test you take, so the decision is entirely up to you.


What’s Next?

Worried that your school of choice really does have a preference for one test or the other? Check out how the Ivy Leagues feel about the ACT and the SAT

Running out of time during your ACT or SAT math section? Our guides will help you beat the clock on both the ACT math section and the SAT math section

Aiming for a perfect score? Once you've decided on your test of choice, check out how to get a perfect 36 on the ACT math section or a perfect 800 on the SAT math section


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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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