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What are the differences between the SAT and ACT?


Are you curious about what the differences between the SAT and ACT are?  If you want a summary, click here to see quickly whether you would be better at the SAT or ACT.  But if you want the nitty gritty details about the differences, read on below!

1. What are the content differences on the SAT vs ACT?

Take a look at the content difference below.  Are there any items that you love or hate?  If so, then give the relevant test an extra point.  Tally up the points at the end to see which is ahead:

1A. Math

The SAT and ACT are very similar in terms of math, but the ACT has more and harder math.

Both Tests Cover:

> Properties of Integers and Rational numbers
> Sequences
> Linear and Quadratic Equations:
> Word problems:
> Functions
> Basic  Geometry, including Lines, Triangles, Polygons, Circles, 3-D and Coordinate geometry
> Data Interpretation, Statistics and Probability

The ACT Also Covers:

> Matrices
> Complex numbers
> Trigonometry
> Logarithms
> Conic Sections

1B. Writing/ English

Like the Math section, both tests cover the topics below and the ACT also covers the topics listed at right.

Both tests cover:


Faulty Modifier
Parallel Construction
Sentence Fragments
Verb Forms
Conciseness and Redundancies
Number Agreement
Adjective vs Adverb

The ACT also covers:

word choice (non-idiom)
transitional logic: which words are best to move from one idea to another
macro-logic: how to order sentences and paragraphs
author’s formality and tone


1C. Reading

The main difference between the SAT and ACT Reading sections is that the SAT includes fill-in-the-blank questions and the ACT’s Reading is only passages and questions about them.

The SAT covers:

Passages: main point, identifying details, inferring information, vocabulary in context, and the function of specific parts

Sentence Completion: relationship between 2 words and vocabulary-based questions

The ACT covers:

Passages: main point, inferring information, vocabulary in context, and the function of specific parts

Fact Finding: without line number references, find and explain a phrase or sentence



Author Method


1D. Science

The SAT does not have a Science section, so if you like science, the ACT has a huge advantage for you.

> Basic Science Knowledge (Physics, Chemistry, Biology)

> Data Representation: analysis, interpreting trends, and calculations based on data

> Research Summaries, including:

> Experimental design/Researcher intent

> Hypothetical Experimental changes

> Interpreting experiments

> Understanding of viewpoints

> Comparing viewpoints

2: What are the rule differences on the ACT vs SAT?

 Guessing: On the SAT, there is a ¼ point penalty for each wrong answer (each correct answer is worth 1 full point). There is no penalty for omitting (just not answering) a question. On the ACT, there is no guessing penalty--guessing wrong and omitting are the same.

Passages: While SAT passages do tend to follow the same basic patterns, they are not labeled by type or topic. The ACT, on the other hand, always labels its 4 passages (that are always in the following order): Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science.

Sections: The SAT doesn’t title its sections--Math is obvious, but Reading and Writing have to be differentiated by question type. The ACT titles its sections in huge bold letters.

Questions: The tests have very similar question styles in Math and Reading; the English questions in both tests involve students choosing how to replace underlined parts of sentences and paragraphs. However, they differ in how they apply this format. The easiest way to understand this is to compare the English section of the ACT to the Writing section of the SAT. You can download a PDF of each test here: SATACT.

Test Structure: The SAT alternates between Math, Reading and Writing sections, and until the change in 2016, the essay is always the first section (in 2016 it will be the last section and optional.)

There are always 10 SAT sections: 3 math, 2 writing, and 3 reading, and 1 experimental section that is not identified (it looks like all the other sections) or scored. They don’t go in any particular order, but you’ll never see 2 math sections back-to-back. A sample order of SAT sections might be:

  1. Essay

  2. Math

  3. Writing

  4. Reading

  5. Experimental

  6. Math

  7. Reading

  8. Math

  9. Reading

  10. Writing

So, in the end, on the SAT, you’re scored on 8 sections and the essay.

The organization of the ACT is much simpler: it has 4 sections that are always in the following order: English, Math, Reading and Science. Sometimes there is an experimental section, but it’s always Section 5, so you know which one it is.

3. How can I see these differences myself?

Take a look at three real ACTs from the past, and three real SATs from the past.  Examine the real tests themselves and see how they feel different!  Also, check out our article on whether the ACT or SAT measures your IQ better.


What's next:

Are you better on the ACT or SAT?  Use this one surefire method to find out.

Read about whether you'll do better on the SAT or 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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