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ACT vs. SAT: 11 Key Differences to Help You Pick the Right Test

Posted by Hannah Muniz | Jun 8, 2017 12:00:00 PM

SAT versus ACT

 

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You’ve probably heard of the ACT and SAT, but how different are these two tests really? In this extensive ACT vs. SAT analysis, we look at the top 11 differences between the ACT and SAT and explain what these differences mean for you. And to conclude, we give you tips on how to decide whether you should take the ACT or SAT.

 

ACT vs. SAT: How Different Are They?

At a glance, the two tests aren't that different. Both the ACT and SAT are nationally recognized standardized tests and common admission requirements for US schools. Catering primarily to high school juniors and seniors, each test measures students’ proficiency in various critical skill areas — such as problem solving and reading comprehension — that are necessary for college success.

Additionally, because all US colleges and universities accept scores from either the ACT or SAT, there's no advantage in taking one test over the other. This means you can apply to the same schools, regardless of which test you decide to take!

But what about the actual content of the two tests? Though not identical, the ACT and SAT are more closely related than ever before as a result of the SAT’s massive redesign in 2016. Now, both exams:

  • Contain similar sections (Reading, Math, etc.) in a predetermined order, with each section appearing just once
  • Offer an optional essay section whose score does not count toward your total score
  • Use rights-only scoring, meaning you will not be penalized for incorrect answers
  • Contain entirely passage-based Reading and English/Writing questions (called “English” on the ACT and “Writing and Language,” or “Writing,” on the SAT)

Despite all of these similarities, there are still many ways in which the ACT and SAT differ from each other. For one, the SAT is overall slightly longer than the ACT. What's more, the number of questions and time limits are different for corresponding sections.

Here is a brief overview of the basic structural and logistical differences between the ACT and SAT: 

 

ACT

SAT

Total Time

2 hrs 55 mins without Writing
3 hrs 35 mins with Writing
3 hrs without Essay
3 hrs 50 mins with Essay

Order of Sections

1. English
2. Math
3. Reading
4. Science
5. Writing (optional)
1. Reading
2. Writing and Language
3. Math No Calculator
4. Math Calculator
5. Essay (optional)

Time Per Section

English: 45 mins
Math: 60 mins
Reading: 35 mins
Science: 35 mins
Writing (optional): 40 mins
Reading: 65 mins
Writing and Language: 35 mins
Math No Calculator: 25 mins
Math Calculator: 55 mins
Essay (optional): 50 mins

# of Questions

English: 75 questions
Math: 60 questions
Reading: 40 questions
Science: 40 questions
Writing (optional): 1 essay
Reading: 52 questions
Writing and Language: 44 questions
Math No Calculator: 20 questions
Math Calculator: 38 questions
Essay (optional): 1 essay

Scoring

Total score range: 1-36

Each section uses a scale of 1-36. Your total score is the average of your four section scores.

The optional Writing section uses a scale of 2-12 and does not count toward your final score.

Total score range: 400-1600

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math sections each use a scale of 200-800 and are combined for a total score.

The optional Essay uses three separate scales of 1-8 and does not count toward your final score.

Cost

$42.50 without Writing
$58.50 with Writing
$46 without Essay
$60 with Essay

Who Accepts Scores?

Accepted by all colleges and universities in the US

Accepted by all colleges and universities in the US

 

So are these the only ways in which the ACT and SAT differ? Not at all! In fact, the two tests differ quite significantly in 11 key ways. Read on to see what these differences are and what they ultimately mean for you.

 

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SAT vs. ACT: 11 Key Differences

Now, let's begin our ACT vs. SAT comparison. Although both tests share several similarities, here are the most important differences for you to consider before deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT.

 

#1: Time Per Question

Loathe time crunches? Then you might prefer the SAT over the ACT. This is because the SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT does. 

This chart illustrates the differences in time per question (if you were to spend the same amount of time on each question in a given section):

 

ACT

SAT

Reading

53 sec/question

75 sec/question

ACT English/SAT Writing

36 sec/question

48 sec/question

Math

60 sec/question

No Calculator: 75 sec/question
Calculator: 87 sec/question

Science

53 sec/question

N/A

 

As you can see, the SAT offers more time per question on all sections of the exam. You’ll have some of the biggest increases in time per question on the SAT Math and Reading sections, with the Math Calculator subsection allotting you nearly 30 seconds more per question than the ACT Math section!

So if you’re worried about time management — particularly on math questions — the SAT offers much more workable and far less stress-inducing time constraints than the ACT does.

 

#2: Science Section

Another major difference has to do with science. While the ACT contains a section entirely devoted to science, the SAT does not. 

Looking above at our chart of differences, we see that the ACT Science section contains 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes. Like the other three ACT sections, Science constitutes one-fourth of your total ACT score. So if you’re a science whiz who loves the idea of having an entire section focused on scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses, the ACT may be a better fit for you.

That being said, the SAT does test scientific concepts — just not through a separate Science section. On the SAT, you’ll occasionally come across questions dealing with scientific passages, data, and charts on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections. Here’s an example of a science-based SAT Reading passage you could see on test day:

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As you probably know, there's no Science score on the SAT like there is on the ACT, but there is an Analysis in Science cross-test score, which is one of the many subscores given on the SAT. That said, most schools won't pay much (if any) attention to your SAT subscores, whereas they will take into consideration your ACT Science score.

 

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#3: No Calculator Math Subsection

Unlike the ACT for which you may use a calculator on all Math questions, the SAT contains a Math No Calculator subsection for which you may not use a calculator. Consisting of 20 questions, the No Calculator subsection is a mere 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT. (By contrast, the Math Calculator subsection is 55 minutes long and consists of 38 questions.)

As a result, if you struggle with solving math quickly or without a calculator, you'd probably fare better on ACT Math than you would on SAT Math. On the other hand, if you’re confident in your math skills and can work fast without a calculator, the SAT is a solid option.

Know this, though: on both the ACT and SAT, you can technically solve all math questions without a calculator. So, really, the No Calculator questions aren't all that different from Calculator questions. That said, the No Calculator questions are meant to be easier to solve without a calculator and are thus generally more reasoning based than arithmetic heavy.

 

#4: Types and Balance of Math Concepts

In regard to math content, the ACT and SAT both have a big emphasis on algebra. But the ACT also tests a couple of concepts that the SAT doesn’t focus on as much.

To start, the ACT has a much larger focus on geometry, which makes up about 35-45 percent of ACT Math. By contrast, geometry accounts for less than 10 percent of SAT Math questions. In addition, trigonometry accounts for about 7 percent of the ACT but less than 5 percent of the SAT, so there's a slightly larger emphasis of trig on the ACT than there is on the SAT. 

The ACT also tests a few concepts that the SAT doesn’t test at all. These include things such as matrices, graphs of trig functions, and logarithms.

So what does all of this mean for you? If you’re good at algebra and data analysis, you’ll likely do well on the SAT. But if you’re a fan of trig functions and geometry, the ACT is a better choice.

 

#5: Math Formulas Reference Guide

Here's another math-related difference: the SAT provides you with a diagram of math formulas, whereas the ACT does not. 

Before the two SAT Math subsections, you'll be given a diagram containing 12 geometry formulas and three laws:

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Although all of these formulas and laws pertain to geometry — which, as you now know, doesn’t make up a huge part of the SAT — having this diagram handy means you won’t need to spend a ton of time memorizing formulas beforehand (though you should take care to memorize some important formulas not included in the diagram).

Unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn’t give you any formulas on test day, meaning you absolutely must memorize all potential formulas before taking the test. So in short, if you’re concerned you may forget certain formulas, the SAT offers a little more of a crutch than the ACT does.

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#6: Importance of Math in Final Score

How big of a role will Math play in your final score? The answer to this question depends on whether you're taking the ACT or SAT. On the ACT, Math accounts for one-fourth of your total score (your Math section score is averaged with your other three section scores). On the SAT, however, Math accounts for half of your total score, making it twice as important on the SAT!

So if math isn’t your strong suit, consider opting for the ACT. With the ACT, a lower Math score won’t negatively affect your total score as much as it will on the SAT.

To illustrate this more clearly, let's look at an example. If I were to score in similar percentiles on the ACT and SAT — with significantly lower Math section scores — you may think my total percentiles on both exams would be about the same. But as you can see below, this isn't the case.

ACT percentiles:

  • English: 32 (95th percentile)
  • Math: 16 (28th percentile)
  • Reading: 32 (94th percentile)
  • Science: 30 (94th percentile)
  • Composite: 28 (89th percentile)
SAT percentiles:
  • EBRW: 700 (94th percentile)
  • Math: 480 (27th percentile)
  • Composite: 1180 (69th percentile)

As this example indicates, even if I were to score in similar percentiles on every section of the ACT and SAT (with lower Math section scores on each test), my composite score percentiles would differ dramatically. In this case, my final ACT percentile is 20 percent higher than my final SAT percentile.

In other words, if math isn't one of your strengths, you’ll have a better shot at hitting the total percentile you want on the ACT than you will on the SAT.

 

#7: Number of Answer Choices on Math

The two tests also differ in the number of answer choices they give you on Math. Both the SAT and ACT Math sections are predominantly multiple choice. But while ACT Math gives you five possible answer choices (A-E or F-K) for each question, SAT Math only gives you four (A-D).

As a reminder, both tests use rights-only scoring, meaning you’ll never lose a point for an incorrect answer. So if you were to guess on an SAT Math question, you’d have a 25 percent chance of getting the question right. But if you were to guess on an ACT Math question, you’d have only a 20 percent chance of getting it right.

Therefore, if you think you may need to guess on Math, know that the SAT offers a very slight advantage over the ACT, with a 5 percent higher probability of getting a question correct.

 

#8: Grid-In Math Questions

If you love multiple choice, especially when it comes to math questions, you may want to stick with the ACT. The SAT, though mostly multiple choice, contains student-produced response questions, or grid-ins, which are math questions for which you must fill in your own answer. In other words, you’ll have no answer choices from which to choose on these questions!

Grid-ins account for 22 percent of SAT Math, or 13 total questions across the No Calculator (five grid-ins) and Calculator (eight grid-ins) subsections. By contrast, ACT Math only has multiple-choice questions. So if you’re not a fan of math questions that don't offer you any answer choices, the ACT is the superior choice.

 

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#9: Evidence-Support Reading Questions

Are you good at pinpointing areas in texts to support your answers to questions? If so, the SAT may be a better fit for you. Evidence-support questions are a big part of SAT Reading but are entirely absent on ACT Reading. These questions build off of the questions that come before them and ask you to cite specific lines or paragraphs as evidence for your answer to a previous question.

Here’s an example of an evidence-support question (with the question to which it's referring):

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Our guide discusses in more detail the different types of evidence questions you’ll encounter on SAT Reading. Evidence questions can be somewhat tricky, especially if you’re not sure where you found your answer in the passage. So if you’re not into the idea of interconnected questions, try the ACT instead (whose Reading questions are always separate from one another).

 

#10: Chronological Reading Questions

On SAT Reading, all questions given to you follow a chronological order — that is, in the order of the passage to which they refer. But on ACT Reading, questions can flow randomly and do not routinely follow the order of the content in the passages.

Here’s an example of two SAT questions, which you can see progress in the order of the passage (as indicated by the line numbers in both questions):

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By contrast, here is an example of two ACT questions, which do not progress in the order of the passage (as indicated by the line number and mention of "last paragraph"):

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As a result, SAT Reading questions are generally easier to follow and thus easier to answer than ACT Reading questions. Chronologically ordered questions can also save you time on the SAT, as you won’t need to search the entire passage for the area to which a question is referring.

 

#11: Essay Content

The last major difference between the two tests deals with essay content. On both the ACT and SAT, the essay component is optional; however, what you must write about differs depending on whether you're taking the SAT or ACT.

On the SAT, you'll be given a passage, which you must read and then analyze. Your essay will dissect the author's argument using evidence and reasoning. In other words, you will not be giving your own opinion.

Here's an example of an SAT Essay prompt:

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On the ACT Writing section, however, your task is different. For this essay, you'll read a short passage about an issue and then analyze the different perspectives on this issue. But unlike the SAT Essay, you'll also give your own opinion on the issue here.

Here's an example of an ACT Writing prompt:

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Which essay type is easier for you depends on what you're better at and more comfortable with writing. With the SAT, you'll need to have good reading comprehension skills in order to fully realize the strengths and weaknesses of the author's argument.

On the other hand, with the ACT, you need to be able to effectively compare and contrast different perspectives on an issue as well as give ample evidence to support your opinion.

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ACT vs. SAT: Which Test Is Right for You?

At last, it's time to ask yourself: which test is right for you — the ACT or SAT? Here are three ways to help you make your decision.

 

Method 1: Take Official Practice Tests

Instead of just guessing whether you'll be better at the ACT or SAT, the best way to decide is to actually take each test and then compare your scores. To do this, you'll need to find an official practice test for both the ACT and SAT. Official practice tests are the closest you can get to the real deal. Here at PrepScholar, we've got all official SAT practice tests and ACT practice tests compiled for your convenience.

Here's what you'll do: choose one official practice test for each exam and then decide on the days you'll take them. As a reminder, each test takes approximately four hours, so make sure you set aside enough time to complete each test without interruption. Do not take the tests on the same day or even two days in a row. In addition, make sure that you're taking the tests in a quiet place and are timing yourself accordingly (i.e., as you would be timed on the actual exams).

Once you've completed both practice tests, calculate your ACT and SAT scores using your practice tests' respective scoring guides and then compare your scores. The easiest way to compare your scores is to convert your total ACT test score to a total SAT test score using our handy conversion system. Alternatively, you can compare percentiles for your ACT and SAT scores to see on which test your percentile was higher. In the end, whichever test you scored higher on is the one you should ultimately prep for and use for college admissions.

If your ACT and SAT scores are nearly or exactly the same, you’ll probably perform equally well on either test. So it’s up to you, then, to decide whether you’d like to try taking both tests, or whether you’d prefer to take just one. For more information, read our guide on who should consider taking both the ACT and SAT.

 

Method 2: Take an SAT vs. ACT Quiz

Another way you can determine which test is right for you is to take a short quiz. In the chart below, check whether you agree or disagree with each statement.

Statement

Agree

Disagree

I struggle with geometry and trigonometry.

   

I am good at solving math problems without a calculator.

   

Science is not my forte.

   

It’s easier for me to analyze something than to explain my opinion.

   

I normally do well on math tests.

   

I can't recall math formulas easily.

   

I like coming up with my own answers for math questions.

   

Tight time constraints stress me out.

   

I can easily find evidence to back up my answers.

   

Chronologically arranged questions are easier to follow.

   

 

Now, count up your check marks in each column to find out what your score means.

Mostly Agrees — The SAT is your match!

If you agreed with most or all of the above statements, the SAT is what you've been looking for. With the SAT, you'll have more time for each question and won't need to deal with a pesky science section or a ton of geometry questions.

Mostly Disagrees — The ACT's the one for you!

If you disagreed with most or all of the statements, you'll most likely prefer the ACT over the SAT. On the ACT, you'll never have to come up with your own answers to math problems, and you get to let your opinion shine in your writing.

Equal Agrees and Disagrees — Either test will work!

If you checked "Agree" and "Disagree" an equal number of times, either the ACT or SAT will suit you. Unless you decide to take both, I suggest taking official ACT and SAT practice tests (as described in #1 above) to see which test's format you're ultimately more comfortable with.

 

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Method 3: Consider Your State's Testing Requirements

Lastly, don’t forget to find out whether your state has any specific testing requirements. Some states require all students to take the ACT or SAT. In these cases, it’s usually best to stick with whatever test is required for your state so that you don’t need to study for the other test, too.

There are 14 states that require the ACT:

  • Alabama
  • Hawaii
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming
And there are eight states/regions that require the SAT:
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire

 

What’s Next?

Want more comparisons of the ACT and SAT? Check out our handy SAT vs. ACT comparison charts, and get info on whether the ACT is actually easier than the SAT.

Not sure what scores to aim for? Read our step-by-step guides to learn how to set goal scores for the SAT and ACT.

And if you're a high achiever, why not go straight for a perfect 1600 or 36?

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 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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Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)

 

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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