The New SAT vs. the ACT: Full Breakdown


For the past decade or so, the SAT has come under increasing scrutiny for its confusing structure, trick questions, and obscure vocabulary. Meanwhile, the ACT is often seen as the fairer test, more closely based in what students learn in school.

As you might have heard, the College Board undertook a radical overhaul of the SAT that went into effect in March 2016 and, in many ways, made it much more similar to the ACT. Adding to the confusion is the fact that ACT, Inc., also made some minor changes to the ACT.

What are the main differences between the current versions of the two tests? The short answer is that the SAT and ACT are now quite similar. The changes have eliminated many of the two tests' major differences in both style and content. Nonetheless, there remain important variations—some long-standing and some newly introduced.

I'm going to start by talking about what the SAT and ACT look like in general, and then I'll break down the new similarities and unique characteristics of each test, section by section:


Brief Timeline of Changes to the SAT and ACT

Before we get into the key differences between the two tests, I've included a basic timeline of when the changes to each exam went into effect below:

As you can see, the ACT, the SAT, and even the PSAT have all undergone noticeable changes in the past few years. Yet while the content and format of the ACT has stayed mostly the same, both the SAT and PSAT have been completely revamped (or, rather, redesigned).

Now that you understand when these big changes happened, let's begin our analysis by comparing the overall structures of the current SAT and ACT.


SAT vs ACT: Overall Test Structure

One of the goals of the SAT overhaul was to make the test more straightforward, so many of its structural oddities, such as the wrong-answer penalty, were eliminated. The College Board also streamlined the SAT structure by including only one section of each type (except for Math, which has two subsections now) rather than three.

The ACT structure, on the other hand, has stayed mostly the same. The biggest changes to the test mainly targeted the Writing (essay) section, and that's it.

Let's go over the specific layouts of the two tests so you can better understand the similarities and differences between them.


Timing and Sections

The current SAT has one Reading section and one Writing section. The Math section is divided into a No Calculator Test and a Calculator Test (meaning you may not use your calculator on the former but may on the latter). In addition, there is one Essay section, which is optional.

The four sections are always in the same order. The entire SAT is three hours without the Essay, and three hours and 50 minutes with the Essay. The exact breakdown looks like this:

SAT Section Total Time # of Questions
1. Reading 65 minutes 52
2. Writing and Language 35 minutes 44
3. Math No Calculator 25 minutes 20
4. Math Calculator 55 minutes 38
5. Essay (Optional) 50 minutes 1 prompt

By contrast, the basic ACT structure and timing have not changed, with the exception of the new essay section, which is longer. Here is the breakdown of the ACT's timing and questions:

ACT Section Total Time # of Questions
1. English 45 minutes 75
2. Math 60 minutes 60
3. Reading 35 minutes 40
4. Science 35 minutes 40
5. Writing (Optional) 40 minutes 1 prompt

As you can see, the format of the current SAT is more similar to that of the ACT than to that of its previous incarnation. While there's no Science section on the SAT, it contains sections on Reading, Writing/English, and Math, just like the ACT does. It also has an optional Essay section like the ACT (before, the SAT Essay was mandatory!).





The 2016 SAT redesign also involved major changes to the scoring system; we'll go through these one at a time:

  • Scoring returned to the 400-1600 scale: In 2005, when the College Board last implemented major changes to the SAT, it added the Writing section; this meant there were three scores (each on a scale of 200-800) to combine, making the top possible score 2400. Nowadays, the Writing and Reading sections count toward the same Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score, which are combined with your Math score to get a final score between 400 and 1600.
  • There's no wrong-answer penalty: You're no longer penalized by 1/4 point for every wrong answer! The original idea behind this policy was to discourage guessing on the SAT, but the College Board's research found that eliminating it doesn't affect scores that much and cuts down on students' reliance on test-taking strategies (a major goal for this overhaul).
  • The Essay is given three scores and no longer affects your total SAT score: Since it's now optional, the SAT Essay works a lot more like the ACT essay—you get a separate Essay score that does not factor into your final score (on the 400-1600 scale). Essay scoring also changed: rather than getting one score between 2 and 12, you'll get three scores, for Reading, Analysis, and Writing, between 2 and 8.
  • You get lots of subscores: As part of its attempt to provide more helpful information to colleges, the College Board now provides several subscores and cross-test scores for the SAT: Analysis in History/Social Studies, Analysis in Science, Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. That said, it's unclear how (or if) colleges use these scores, so don't worry about them for now.

On the other hand, ACT scoring stayed mostly the same. You get four section scores, each on a scale of 1-36. These are then averaged to create a composite ACT score, also on a scale of 1-36.

The exception is ACT Writing. This section is separate from your composite ACT score and scored on a scale of 2-12. Like the SAT Essay, it's scored across multiple domains, which are as follows:

  • Ideas and Analysis
  • Development and Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use

Each of these subscores is between 2 and 12, and the average of these four subscores is your ACT Writing score.

Now that we've covered the big-picture changes, let's move on to the nitty-gritty of each section of the SAT and ACT.


body_old_books-1.jpgJason Parrish/Flickr


SAT/ACT Reading Section

SAT Reading is the section that's most similar to its previous incarnation. However, there are still some big changes to note.

One is that the SAT Reading section only includes longer passages. Without Sentence Completions or short passages, this section now looks a lot more like the ACT Reading section, which contains a series of 500-750 word passages followed by several questions. Also, thanks to a recent change to the ACTboth tests feature paired passages.

These are just the basic similarities of the two tests' Reading sections, but how specifically do these two sections differ? The chart below shows the specifications for each test:

  SAT Reading ACT Reading
Total Time 65 minutes 35 minutes
# of Questions 5 passages, 52 questions 4 passages, 40 questions
Passage Types 1 US/World Literature, 2 History/Social Studies, 2 Science 1 Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, 1 Social Sciences, 1 Humanities, 1 Natural Sciences
Question Types Main Idea, Vocab-in-Context, Inference, Evidence Support, Data Reasoning, Technique, Detail-Oriented Main Idea, Vocab-in-Context, Inference, Detail-Oriented



SAT Reading

Although the Sentence Completions and short passages have been eliminated, the remaining long reading passages look more or less the same as they always have, with a few exceptions:

  • Inclusion of classic texts: As part of the plan to make the Reading passages more complex and therefore more similar to what you might read in school, the SAT Reading section now includes excerpts from texts from the Western canon, including stories and essays by famous authors, US founding documents, and other historically important works. Because these are often quite old, they tend to include more challenging language.
  • Evidence questions: One of the big changes to SAT Reading that you might've heard about is the addition of evidence questions, which ask you to indicate what part of a passage supports your answer to a previous question. As these questions are quite tricky, you'll definitely want to learn effective ways to approach them.
  • Questions go in chronological order (for a passage): This is one aspect of the SAT Reading section that didn't change and that really sets it apart from the ACT Reading section, in which questions do not follow the order of the passage.
  • Charts and figures in science passages: Two of the five SAT Reading section passages cover scientific topics and include charts and figures. Here's an example of the types of charts and data you'll see, taken from an official SAT practice test:



ACT Reading

The big difference between ACT Reading and SAT Reading remains how you need to budget time. Also, while the SAT is more focused on analyzing specific points in a passage and understanding how the author constructs an argument, the ACT deals more with reading comprehension.

Here are some of the key features of ACT Reading, in comparison with SAT Reading:

  • Randomly ordered questions: SAT Reading tells you where to look for the answers to most questions, but one of the biggest challenges on ACT Reading is finding the information you need. The questions are ordered randomly and often do not give line numbers, which can make finding specific details very tricky.
  • Less time per question: The strict time constraint is the other challenge many students face on ACT Reading: you have roughly eight and half minutes per 10-question passage on the ACT, compared with 13 minutes per 10- to 11-minute passage on SAT Reading.




SAT Writing/ACT English Section

Of the three SAT sections, Writing underwent the biggest changes (though if you've taken the ACT, its new format is going to look familiar). The current SAT Writing and Language section uses the same passage-based format as the ACT English section.

Here's an official example of an SAT Writing passage and the questions that follow:


SAT Writing also includes more of the same grammatical concepts as ACT English, most notably of which is punctuation. 

  SAT Writing ACT English
Total Time 35 minutes 45 minutes
# of Questions 4 passages, 44 questions 5 passages, 75 questions
Content Tested Standard English Conventions: 20 questions (45%), covering sentence structure, conventions of usage, and conventions of punctuation
Expression of Ideas: 24 questions (55%), covering development, organization and effective language use
Usage and Mechanics: sentence structure (20-25%), grammar and usage (15-20%), and punctuation (10-15%)
Rhetorical Skills: style (15-20%), strategy (15-20%), and organization (10-15%)


Despite the massive similarities between the SAT Writing and ACT English sections, there are still some noticeable differences. Let's go through them one at a time.


SAT Writing and Language

As I noted above, the SAT overhaul involved a complete redesign of the Writing section so that all of the questions are now presented in the context of reading passages. Here are other major changes to note:

  • The Writing section is included in your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score: With the current SAT, the Writing section is part of the same final section score as the Reading section is; this change returned the SAT to its original 400-1600 scale (as opposed to the previous 600-2400 scale).
  • Slightly more focused on writing style: These days, SAT Writing has slightly more questions dealing with Expression of Ideas (writing style and argument) than it does targeting Standard English Conventions (grammar and sentence structure).
  • Includes charts and graphs: Like the SAT Reading section, SAT Writing includes charts and graphs with its passages. However, there are only a few questions of this type per test.
  • Some word choice questions involve challenging vocab: While word choice questions on the ACT are more focused on nuanced differences between common words, this type of question on the SAT sometimes tests knowledge of more traditional vocabulary words like those that were included in old Sentence Completion questions.


ACT English

Again, the similarities between these sections are much greater than their differences, but the ACT does emphasize slightly different skills than the SAT does.

Here are the main features of the ACT English section and how they differ from the SAT Writing section:

  • Slightly more focused on grammar and conventions: While the SAT has more questions about writing style, the ACT has the emphasis reversed: it's primarily focused on Usage and Mechanics questions, which cover sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Big-picture questions: Though the two tests cover almost all the same material, ACT English has one type of question that SAT Writing does not have: main idea questions. Both tests ask questions such as "What is the purpose of this passage?" on their Reading sections, but only the ACT includes these on the English section as well:





SAT/ACT Math Section

SAT Math is the section that remains the most similar structurally, but there were some pretty big changes in terms of its content. Like the ACT Math section, SAT Math now includes some more advanced math topics, such as trigonometry and complex numbers, though there are only a few questions on these concepts.

SAT Math questions are also closer to ACT Math questions in style: they're more straightforward and test the kinds of math you learn in school rather than more obscure topics.

Here's an overview of the two Math sections:

  SAT Math ACT Math
Total Time Calculator: 55 minutes
No Calculator: 25 minutes
60 minutes
# of Questions Calculator: 38 questions
No Calculator: 20 questions
60 questions
Topics Tested Heart of Algebra — 33%
Problem Solving and Data Analysis — 28%
Passport to Advanced Math — 29%
Additional Topics in Math — 10%
Pre-algebra — 20-25%
Elementary algebra — 15-20%
Intermediate algebra — 15-20%
Coordinate geometry — 15-20%
Plane geometry — 20-25%
Trigonometry — 5-10%



SAT Math

The changes to SAT Math were designed to make it more similar to the tests you take in math class, meaning you're asked harder questions in a more straightforward way.

Here are some of the key changes to note:

  • Divided into a Calculator section and a No Calculator section: SAT Math is now split into two sections, one for which you're allowed to use a calculator and one for which you aren't. Don't worry about the No Calculator section too much, though, as it only requires basic calculations you can easily do by hand or in your head.
  • Heavily focused on algebra: As I mentioned above, one of the goals of the SAT was to make it more similar to what you learn in school and what you'll need for college. One part of this change was shifting the focus of the test toward algebra. Now, 61% of Math questions deal with algebra topics, including manipulating equations and expressions, writing equations to solve word problems, solving quadratics, and working with formulas.
  • More data analysis: The proportion of data analysis questions has also increased. Almost one-third of SAT Math questions focus on manipulating ratios and percents, in addition to understanding graphs and charts. 
  • Very little geometry: With so much of the SAT Math section devoted to algebra and data analysis, there's very little room for geometry. In fact, only six questions ask about geometry and trigonometry, though the test still provides most of the common formulas you'll need.
  • Still has grid-ins: Like the old version of SAT Math, the current Math section has 13 student-produced response questions, commonly known as grid-ins. These questions require you to write in your own answer instead of choosing one from the options given to you.


ACT Math

ACT Math stayed more or less the same, despite some tweaks to topic distribution. However, the changes to the SAT have created some new differences between the tests:

  • Far more geometry and trigonometry: If you like geometry, the ACT's the test for you. One-quarter to one-third of ACT Math questions deal with geometry or trig. However, unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn't provide you with any formulas, so you'll absolutely have to know the common ones.
  • A wider range of material: In fact, ACT Math tests more topics in general than the SAT does. You might see questions about logarithms, graphs of trig functions, and matrices—none of which appear on the SAT.




SAT/ACT Science Section

While there still isn't a Science section on the SAT, the College Board has attempted to incorporate these skills into the other three sections. According to the College Board website

"[the redesigned SAT] call[s] on the same sorts of knowledge and skills that students will use in college, in their jobs, and throughout their lives to make sense of recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues."

The current version of the SAT includes questions that ask you to analyze a chart or graph in all three sections, as well as two reading passages on scientific topics.

The ACT continues to have a lot more science questions since it has a dedicated Science section. It also asks more complex questions than the SAT does, particularly with regard to experimental design.


SAT Essay/ACT Writing Section

The Essay is the one section for which both tests underwent a major overhaul. Moreover, both the SAT Essay and ACT Writing sections became more complex and are now optional.

Ideally, the changes to the essay create results that better reflect your ability to understand and build arguments, though it remains to be seen how many schools will require the essay section once it's optional for both tests. 

  SAT Essay ACT Writing
Total Time 50 minutes 40 minutes
Optional? Yes Yes
# of Prompts 1 prompt 1 prompt
Scoring Domains Reading, Analysis, Writing Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, Language Use



SAT Essay

The College Board shifted the SAT essay task from one that asks you to make an argument to one that asks you to dissect an argument. Take a look at the official sample prompt below to get a sense of the type of question you'll be asked on test day:


Here are some of the main features of the redesigned SAT Essay section and how it differs from the old SAT Essay:

  • You're given a text and asked to analyze the author's argument: Unlike the prompt for the old SAT Essay, the current essay assignment asks you to read and and analyze an argumentative essay. You're then graded on three skills: reading, analysis, and writing.
  • They don't want your opinion: According to each SAT Essay prompt, it doesn't matter what your opinion on the issue is—rather, you need to explain how the author makes his point.
  • More similar to essays in English class and on AP tests: In keeping with the College Board's goal to make the SAT more accurately reflect the skills you learn in school, the SAT Essay task is now much closer to the types of essays you write in school.


ACT Writing

The Writing (essay) section is the only part of the ACT that underwent major changes. Nonetheless, it's remaining more similar to its old format than the current SAT Essay did to its. Take a look at the official sample prompt below to see what you'll be asked to write about:


Here are some key ways in which the ACT Writing section differs from the SAT Essay section:

  • Asked to analyze three perspectives on an issue: Rather than simply laying out a question, the prompt gives you three perspectives on an issue and asks you to evaluate them.
  • Must argue your opinion: Like the previous ACT and SAT essay prompts, the current ACT Writing task requires you to argue your own position on the issue at hand.
  • Need to generate specific examples: Since the prompt itself only provides perspectives on the issue, not facts, you'll need to come up with specific examples to bolster your argument.


body_handwriting-1.jpgCaleb Roenigk/Flickr


What Do These SAT and ACT Differences Mean for You?

I've written an in-depth breakdown of how to decide whether you should take the SAT or ACT here if you want to read through it. But for now, here are the important takeaway points as you create a long-term study plan.


Content Differences Between the SAT and ACT

The redesigned SAT is much more content-based than the old SAT, so if you're planning to take it, make sure you understand exactly what will be on it. Also, keep in mind that the ACT still tests more grammar and math concepts than the SAT does.


Check Whether You Need to Take the Essay

Both the ACT Writing test and SAT Essay are optional, so before registering for either test, check whether you need to take the essay. Requirements vary depending on the schools you're applying to. Even if you aren't sure where you want to apply, I recommend signing up for the essay anyway.


What's Next?

If you've decided to take the SAT, check out our in-depth study guide as well as our expert guide to a perfect 1600 SAT score, written by a full scorer.

On the other hand, if you think the ACT might be the test for you, try an official ACT practice test, calculate your goal score, and learn how to get a perfect 36 ACT score.



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About the Author
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Alex Heimbach

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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