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ACT vs SAT
What Is the Difference Between Them?

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: November 26, 2021

Both the SAT and ACT tests are used to check how ready you are for college.

Based on how well you do on these standardized tests, it’s determined whether you’ll get into your desired college and get awarded a merit scholarship by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

In my decade-old career, I’ve prepared countless students for both the ACT and the SAT tests.

Today, I’ll share some important information regarding the ACT and SAT, and their similarities and differences, so you can choose which test is a better fit for you.

Let’s start.

Difference Between SAT and ACT

  • ACT and SAT are tests many colleges require before enrolling.
  • Both ACT and SAT tests are similar in length and have similar sections.
  • There are some major differences to the tests that candidates should be familiar with before choosing one of them.
  • Before deciding which test to take, you should read the SAT and ACT comparison and check your state requirements.

ACT Vs. SAT Features

Shading the answer sheet

If you’re wondering which test colleges prefer, don’t. Colleges accept both tests, so which test to take comes down to your preference and desired course of study.

The SAT is given by a nonprofit College Board organization that also offers other courses and tests.

The ACT is given by the nonprofit ACT organization, which only focuses on the namesake test.

Since SAT’s redesign in 2016, the two tests became more similar:

  • The tests have similar sections.
  • The scoring is rights only, which means you aren’t penalized for incorrect answers.
  • They have passage-based reading and writing sections.

While there are similarities between the tests, there are also many differences, such as structure, timing, number of questions, scoring, and more.

ACT Vs. SAT Differences

Close up image of unshaded answer sheet

Let’s take a look at the main differences between the ACT and SAT, so you can make an informed decision on which test is better for you.

1. Test Format

While both tests have similar sections, their order is different.

Order of sections on the SAT Order of sections on the ACT
  1. Reading
  2. Writing and language
  3. Math with no calculator
  4. Math with calculator
  1. English
  2. Math
  3. Reading
  4. Science
  5. Writing (optional)

The total test time also differs. The SAT is 3 hours long, while the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes.

However, the ACT has a 40-minute long optional essay section. If you decide to take the ACT writing test, expect your total test time to be 3 hours and 35 minutes.

Another important difference in the test format is the science section. There’s no science section on the SAT, while there is one on the ACT.

As for the number of questions, the SAT has 154, while there are 215 on the ACT.

When it comes to the style of the questions, SAT has evidence and context-based questions.

They focus on real-world situations, and there are several steps to solving them.

Questions on the ACT are more straightforward and less difficult to understand.

As for the difficulty levels, math questions increase in difficulty on the SAT as you go through them.

On the other hand, reading and writing and language passage questions progress chronologically, not by difficulty.

The difficulty level on the ACT is random on the English and Reading sections. The math section works the same way as the SAT — the difficulty increases as you go through the questions. The same goes for the science questions.

2. Section Time and Number of Questions

The sections on both the ACT and SAT tests have different time allocations and questions.

ACT Time allocation SAT Time allocation
  • English 75 questions
  • Math 60 questions
  • Reading 40 questions
  • Science 40 questions
  • Optional writing section 1 essay
  • English 45 minutes
  • Math 60 minutes
  • Reading 35 minutes
  • Science 35 minutes
  • Writing 40 minutes
  • Reading 52 questions
  • Writing and Language section 44 questions
  • Math without calculator 20 questions
  • Math with calculator 38 questions
  • Reading 65 minutes
  • Writing and Language 35 minutes
  • Math without calculator 25 minutes
  • Math with calculator 55 minutes

Most questions on the SAT are multiple-choice, except for the essay. There are some grid-in answers in the math section, where you write down the question on a provided paper.

You’ll have more time per question on the SAT than on the ACT.

The ACT is a time aptitude test, and all the questions are multiple-choice, except for the optional writing part.

3. Science Section

A second page of an answer sheet

Only the ACT has a science part, which amounts to one-fourth of the total ACT score. However, you won’t be tested for specific science knowledge here; you’ll be tested for critical thinking skills.

The science section includes [1]:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Earth/space sciences — astronomy, meteorology, geology

To get a good score on this section, you should know how to interpret experimental data and hypotheses.

While SAT doesn’t have a dedicated science section, it has many questions about scientific experiments, data analysis, charts, and hypotheses in the reading, math, and writing sections.

It means you’ll also need to have a good science grasp to do well on SAT. These questions are part of the Analysis in Science cross-test score, a subscore on the SAT [2].

Math Section

Writing on an answer sheet

ACT and SAT differ when it comes to the math section content:

SAT Math Section ACT Math Section
Arithmetic

Problem-solving and data analysis

Algebra

Geometry

Pre-calculus

Trigonometry

Arithmetic

Algebra I and II

Functions

Geometry

Trigonometry

Other significant differences in math sections include:

  • SAT has a no calculator section with 20 questions and a calculator section with 38 questions. ACT doesn’t have a no calculator section, meaning you’re allowed to use a calculator on all ACT math questions.
  • Both tests focus on algebra, but ACT focuses more on geometry than SAT. The geometry makes up 30 to 45% of the ACT math section, whereas it only makes up 10% of SAT.
  • SAT gives you a diagram with 12 geometry formulas and 3 laws, while ACT doesn’t. It means you’ll have to memorize formulas for this ACT section.
  • Both tests have multiple-choice answers. SAT math questions only give four options, while ACT gives five. SAT also has grid-ins — questions with no multiple choice answers offered, where you have to fill in the answer.
  • Half of SAT scores are made up of math scores, while only around a quarter of the final ACT scores are from the math section.

5. Reading Questions

Here’s how the reading questions differ on these standardized tests:

ACT SAT
5 reading passages 4 reading passages
Questions flow randomly and don’t follow the order of the content in a passage Questions follow a chronological order of the passage
ACT has data representation questions SAT reading section has charts, graphs, and questions
ACT doesn’t have evidence-support SAT has evidence-support questions

6. Optional Essay

A woman writing an essay on her notebook

In the past, both the tests had an optional essay section. You were required to write an original essay based on a provided passage.

However, starting from summer 2021, the SAT no longer offers an essay. [3]

You still have the option of writing the essay on the ACT.

You’ll read a short passage about a certain issue. Your task is to analyze different perspectives about the issue and give your own opinion.

You should have good reading comprehension and rhetorical skills to be able to compare and contrast opposing perspectives and give evidence that supports your opinion.

If the school you’re applying to requires an essay as part of the college admissions process, you should take the ACT exam.

7. Scores

The two tests have major scoring differences.

Final SAT Score Final ACT score
The final composite score ranges from 400 to 1600:

  • Evidence-based reading and writing 200 to 800
  • Math 200 to 800
The final composite ACT score is made up of:

  • English 1 to 36
  • Math 1 to 36
  • Reading 1 to 36
  • Science 1 to 36

You can choose which SET and ACT final score you want to send to your college. However, there are colleges that require you to submit all your ACT and SAT scores.

Whether you choose ACT or SAT, make sure to check the score-reporting policy of your desired college in advance.

Note: Wrong answers don’t negatively affect your SAT and ACT scores. You have a 20% chance of getting the answer right on the ACT and a 25% chance of getting it right on the SAT.

Since you aren’t penalized for wrong answers, you should guess the answer. There’s nothing to lose.

8. How Often the Test is Offered

A woman preparing for an exam with crumpled paper on table

The final major difference between ACT vs. SAT is when the tests are offered.

Both ACT and SAT are offered seven times a year:

SAT ACT
March or April

May

June

August

October

November

December

February

April

June

July

September

October

December

The registration deadline for SAT is usually about a month before the test day, and for the ACT, it’s five to six weeks.

Read More:  How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

9. Cost

Here’s the breakdown of how much the tests cost:

SAT ACT
Registration $52 $55
Essay portion / $70
Late registration $30 $35
Change of test date and test center $30 $35
Additional score reports $12 $13

When it comes to ACT vs. SAT comparison, the SAT is slightly more affordable.

Note: Both tests offer fee waivers, or you can have the option to take either the SAT or ACT for free due to state support. SAT fee waivers cover more, including late fees and unlimited score reports.

How to Decide Which Test You Should Take?

Making a choice between SAT or ACT is a big decision for high school students. Here are some tips that can help you choose ACT or SAT:

Take Practice Tests

Don’t guess if you should take the SAT or ACT. Instead, you should take a practice test and compare your composite score to determine which test to take. Take practice SAT or ACT prep and see how well you will do.

"Your actual ability, how well you do percentile-wise on these tests, is really hard to determine unless you sit down and take a full-length official practice test from both the SAT and ACT." -Chris Lele, senior GRE/SAT curriculum manager for Magoosh

Keep in mind that test-takers need four hours for each test, so it’s best to set apart two days for the exams.

Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for a few hours, and give yourself enough time.

Ideally, you’ll have several days-long breaks between the tests to relax and recharge.

Try to simulate the real test — time each section and take breaks the same as you would on the real test.

Once your tests are done, calculate the final score, and compare the SAT score to the ACT score.

Since the scores are shown differently, use the conversion system for comparing scores.

When opting for one test, choose the test you scored higher on when doing the test prep.

If your scores are close on both practice tests, you’ll probably do equally well on either the ACT or the SAT.

Think About Testing Requirements in Your State

Before you make a final decision on the one test to take, you have to consider the testing requirements in your state.

Some states already have specific test requirements in place:

States that require the ACT States that require the SAT
  • Alabama
  • Hawaii
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Utah
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • West Virginia

Note: Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee all require a test before you graduate, but you’re allowed to choose between either the ACT or the SAT.

When Should You Take the SAT?

Sat logo examination background

You should take the SAT if:

  • Your state or school requires the SAT.
  • You are good at solving math problems — If you have good math grades and can do math problem solving without a calculator, the SAT could be the right choice for you. 
  • You want to have more time per question — If you like to take your time and think things through, choose the SAT.
  • You don’t like science — SAT doesn’t have a separate science part, so it’s perfect if you usually don’t do well on science quizzes.

Related Articles:

When Should You Take the ACT?

Shading an Exam ACT logo

You should take the ACT if:

  • Your state or school requires the ACT.
  • You don’t like math — Math is only a quarter of the official ACT section scores, while it’s half of SAT. If your math score is low, you can make up for it by having high section scores on other parts.
  • You love science — ACT has a separate science section.
  • You like essay writing — College Board announced the SAT no longer offers essay writing, so your only option is the ACT.

SAT Vs. ACT: Which One Should You Choose?

I’ve outlined all the key differences between the SAT vs. ACT. Make sure to study these key differences in detail before making your final decision.

Start by checking your state requirements. If you have the option to choose between these two exams, take a practice test and make a decision based on your ACT vs. SAT score.

Your decision should also depend on how good you are at writing and language questions, as well as if you prefer math and science sections or not.

Finally, make sure to spend enough time doing test prep after you decide which exam to take.


References:

  1. https://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/test-preparation/
  2. https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/about/scores/structure
  3. https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/college-board-modifies-sat-amid-pandemic/

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