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SAT vs ACT: Key Differences

Should I take the ACT or the SAT? This is one of the most common questions students have when they begin to consider the college application process.

If you’re a high-school student gearing up to apply to your top college choices, one thing’s for sure: you’ll need to get through either the SAT or the ACT first. Every college and university in the US accepts either or both of these tests as part of its admissions requirements. The tests—which are designed to assess your grasp of expected high-school-level skills and your readiness for college-level material—have lots of similarities. But there are also important differences you’ll want to consider before deciding which one to invest your time preparing for.  

In this article, we'll explore the key differences between the two exams (which, by the way, are both accepted and given equal weight by almost all colleges and universities in today's admissions processes). As we'll eventually see, if you struggle with time management on standardized tests and are, relatively speaking, better at math than English or Reading Comprehension, the SAT may be a better fit for you. But let's explore why this might be so.

State Standardized Testing Requirements

The first thing to consider, presuming you’re a US high-school student, is what the graduation requirements in your state are. Several states require high-school students to take either the SAT or the ACT in order to graduate. If you live in one of those states, the wisest strategy is probably to commit to preparing for just that test, as taking both tests divides your prep time among different concepts and strategies. You’ll probably score much higher if you focus all your energy on a single test.

The 11 states that require the ACT are: 

•    Alabama
•    Hawaii
•    Kentucky
•    Mississippi
•    Montana
•    Nebraska
•    Nevada
•    North Carolina
•    Utah
•    Wisconsin
•    Wyoming

The 10 states that require the SAT are: 

•    Colorado
•    Connecticut
•    Delaware
•    Illinois
•    Indiana
•    Maine
•    Michigan
•    New Hampshire
•    Rhode Island
•    West Virginia

Structure and Scoring of the SAT vs. the ACT

Now let’s take a look at the differences in testing structure and scoring for the SAT vs the ACT. 

ACT and SAT Subject Sections

The sections of the ACT, in order, are: English, Math, Reading, Science, and (optional) Writing.

The sections of the SAT, in order, are: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (no calculator), and Math (with calculator).

Total Time

The ACT takes 2h55m total, without writing. With the optional Writing section added, the ACT takes 3h35m total.

The SAT takes 3h total. 

Time and Questions Per Section

On the ACT, the English section contains 75 questions and takes 45m; the Math section contains 60 questions and takes 60m; the Reading section contains 40 questions and takes 35m; the Science section contains 40 questions and takes 35m; and the optional Writing section contains 1 question and takes 40m. 

On the SAT, the Reading section contains 52 questions and takes 65m, the Writing and Language section contains 44 questions and takes 35m, the Math (no calculator) section contains 20 questions and takes 25m, and the Math (with calculator) contains 38 questions and takes 55m.

ACT vs. SAT Scoring

The ACT’s score range is 1-36. Each section is also scored 1-36 (except for Writing), and the average of the four main sections makes up your final score. The Writing section is scored from 2-12 and does not affect your total score.

The SAT’s total score range is 400-1600. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section both are scored from 200-800, and the two scores are added to make up your total score. 

In previous versions of the SAT, you were penalized for getting an answer wrong, which meant it was better to leave a question blank than get it wrong. This mean that guessing was not always the best strategy. But in the current version of the SAT (as well as the ACT), there is no penalty for getting a question wrong, and therefore you should find a way to answer every single question, even if you have to guess.

How much does it cost to take the ACT or the SAT?

The ACT costs $63 without Writing, and $88 with Writing.

The SAT costs $60, so it’s fairly similar to the ACT without Writing.

Time Management on the SAT vs. the ACT

For many students, timing is the most difficult and anxiety-producing part of taking any standardized test. If that’s you, you’ll want to look closely at the different timing considerations for each test as you decide which will be a better representation of your talent to the schools of your choice.

Generally speaking, the SAT offers more time per question. Now, this generally means that SAT questions are often a bit more involved than ACT questions. But still, if having to proceed quickly through questions makes you more anxious than working methodically through slightly more in-depth questions, then you’ll probably want to opt for the SAT. 
The average amount of time per question for the SAT is: 53s for Reading, 36s for English, 60s for Math, and 53s for Science.

The average amount of time per question for the SAT is: 75s for Reading, 48s for Writing and Language, 75s for Math (no calculator), and 87s for Math (with calculator).

The Role of Science Questions on the ACT

This is a major difference between the two exams, as the ACT contains an entire Science section that counts for 1/4 of your overall score, while the SAT doesn’t contain a Science section at all. While the ACT Science section doesn’t test actual scientific subject knowledge, it does test your critical thinking skills and literacy for working with scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses. The SAT does include some questions involving scientific questions in the other sections, and the test does include an “Analysis in Science” subscore, but generally speaking, schools don’t typically care much about subscores. 

Therefore, if Science is a particularly strong subject for you, you’ll definitely want to consider the ACT.

There are Major Differences Between the ACT and SAT Related to Math

The biggest difference between ACT and the SAT when it comes to Math is that mathematics has a much larger influence on your SAT score. The math section drives 25% of your overall ACT score and 50% of your overall SAT score. But we'll get to this point last in this section.

Can you use a calculate on the SAT or the ACT?

The answer to this is a little complicated, because another big difference between the tests is the use of a calculator. For the ACT, you can use a calculator on every math question. For the SAT, there is one math section that allows a calculator and another that doesn’t. The no calculator Math section on the SAT is the shortest section on the whole exam, at only 25m with only 20 questions, which focus more on mathematical reasoning than arithmetic. And it is possible to answer every math question on both exams without a calculator. However, if you have weak arithmetic skills and struggle to perform calculations with speed and/or accuracy, you may fare better on the ACT.

The two tests also differ in the particular mathematical concepts and subject areas they assess. While both exams focus heavily on algebra, the biggest difference is in geometry. Geometry makes up 30-45% of ACT Math questions, and less than 10% of SAT math questions. Further, trigonometry makes up 7% of ACT questions and less than 5% of SAT Math questions. The ACT also tests matrices, graphs of trigonometric functions, and logarithms, none of which come up on the SAT. So if those subjects are strong suits for you, consider the ACT. If you’re stronger in algebra and data analysis questions, the SAT is probably better for you.

Included Math Formulas

While not all SAT Math questions allow the use of a calculator, they do all come with a reference guide that contains 12 geometry formulas and three geometric laws. The ACT doesn’t include anything along those lines, and you’ll need to remember geometry formulas all on your own.

Multiple-Choice and Student-Produced Response Differences

There are some differences between the structure of the answer choices in the Math sections on the SAT vs ACT. ACT Math problems offer five answer choices per problem. SAT Math problems, on the other hand, offer only four answer choices per problem. Technically this means that every answer you give on the SAT Math section has a slightly higher chance of being right (25% compared to 20% for the ACT). However, the SAT also has a whole different kind of math question that the ACT doesn’t, which requires a “Student-Produced Response,” or “grid-in” response, in which you have to calculate the answer on your own, with no multiple-choice options. These account for 22% of SAT Math questions.

Math’s Influence on Final Score

The final and most important difference between the two tests’ Math sections is in their impact on your total score. As one of four equally weighted sections on the ACT, the ACT Math section makes up 25% of your total score. As one of two equally weighted sections on the SAT, the SAT Math section makes up 50% of your final score. Therefore, if your strongest subject is Math, then you’ll definitely want to take the SAT, where Math makes up a much bigger percentage of your total score. If Math is your weakest subject, you’ll probably want to take the ACT, where it counts for only 25% of your total score.

SAT vs. ACT Reading Question Differences

On the SAT Reading section, there are several questions that are known as “Evidence Support Reading Questions.” This kind of question builds on a previous question about a particular passage, asking you to identify the specific part of the passage that supports your response. The ACT contains no interconnected questions at all, and no questions requiring you to identify evidence from the passage.

Further, every SAT reading question is asked in chronological order in relation to the content in the passage being referred to. The ACT Reading questions, on the other hand, are arranged randomly for each passage, and don’t follow the order of the content. 

Optional Essay Section

The final difference is the ACT’s optional Writing section. This single essay question asks you to read a short passage about an issue, identify and analyze the different perspectives, then offer your own opinion with evidence from the passage and logical reasoning. This section is not required. It may be helpful to take it if you are applying to a program where writing/rhetorical skills are important, and if you’re a particularly strong writer. If, however, you’re strictly a quant person, then feel free to skip this section and maybe even consider taking the SAT, where math questions make up half your total score.

Conclusion: Should you take the ACT or the SAT?

Although this article focused on the differences between the ACT and the SAT, the exams are not all that dissimilar. They generally test the same concepts, require good time management skills, and don't penalize you for guessing, so they lend themselves to similar test-taking strategies. That said, there are some differences in relative focus across subjects and question types that can imply that students in certain situations are likely to score relatively higher on once exam vs. the other. For example, if you don't like science, struggle with time management on standardized tests, and tend to be good at math, the SAT is likely to give you a better shot at achieving a higher relative composite score.

But for most students, there probably isn't a clear indication that one test is better than the other. It is also the case that almost every college and university accepts both. So the question of "should I take the ACT or the SAT?" is less important than many students and parents imagine.