What is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

Aerial view of hand is solving a math problem on white paper with a black calculator on the desk.

Flickr user Bryon Lippincott

You might be wondering, especially if you have to take one, “What is the difference between the ACT and SAT?” In recent years the SAT underwent a massive revamp of its format and sections, and the tests are more similar now, but they do still have their differences. Knowing these differences can help you determine which test is best for your college admission chances.

Here are some differences between the SAT and ACT that you need to be aware of.

 ACTSAT
Why Take It?Increase your chances for getting into the college and scholarships of your choice.Increase your chances for getting into the college and scholarships of your choice.
Scoring1-36 Scale400-1600 Scale
Test Length2 Hours, 55 Minutes (No Essay)
3 Hours, 40 Minutes (With Essay)
3 Hours
Test Structure Multiple Choice Questions In areas of:
English
mathematics
reading
science
Mostly multiple choice with 3 Sections:
Reading
Writing and Language
Math
Reading4 Passages5 Passages
Science1 section focused critical thinking skills/data interpretationNone
MathematicsArithmetic
Algebra I & II
Geometry, Trigonometry and Data Analysis
Arithmetic
Algebra I & II
Geometry, Trigonometry, and Probability & Statistics
Calculator PolicyCalculator allowed on all questionsCalculator usage is limited to specific questions.
EssaysOptional EssageNone

The SAT

A student taking the SAT can score between 400 and 1600 possible points. The test is comprised of three main sections: Evidence-Based Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. Evidence-Based Reading and Writing are worth 800 points together, and Math is also worth 800 points. The two results are combined together to get your SAT Combined score.

The full test is 3 hours long. For the sections, you can expect:

Evidence-Based Reading

  • 52 questions
  • 65 minutes
  • Tests your reading comprehension on passages and a variety of subjects

Writing

  • 44 questions
  • 35 minutes
  • Tests on vocabulary, language, and grammar

Math

  • 58 questions
  • Has a section for calculators, and one without
  • 80 minutes for both sections (25 with no calculator, 55 minutes with)
  • Tests algebra, trigonometry, and geometry
  • Provides you with a list of basic math formulas

The SAT question layout is more straightforward than it was pre-2016. It takes less time to figure out what the question is asking you to answer. College Board also removed the optional SAT essay in 2021 and it is no longer offered.

The ACT

The ACT is scored out of 36 possible points and it has four sections—Math, English, Science, and Reading. Each are worth 36 points, but the scores are averaged together to arrive at your ACT Composite score. In total, the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long or 3 hours 35 minutes if you decide to go with the optional essay.

The ACT includes:

English

  • 75 questions
  • 45 minutes
  • Tests punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and more

Math

  • 60 questions
  • 60 minutes
  • Tests on Algebra, trigonometry, and geometry with a calculator

Reading

  • 40 questions
  • 35 minutes
  • Tests your reading comprehension on a variety of subjects

Science

  • 40 questions
  • 35 minutes
  • Tests on passages, graphs, summaries, research, tables, and more

Writing (optional)

  • 1 essay
  • 40 minutes
  • Students are required to write a persuasive essay

What is The Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

So what are the differences?

The Sciences

First is the fact that the ACT has a science section and the ACT doesn’t. These questions are based on interpretation, analysis, reasoning, and problem solving. You will be required to understand graphs and tables.

The Math

It’s also important to note the differences in the math sections. Although a calculator is allowed for the entirety of the ACT, the ACT does not provide a list of basic math formulas. The SAT does! So you’re going to have to memorize a few if you want to take the ACT, but have to go without the calculator for a bit on the SAT. And don’t try to sneak those formulas onto your calculator – your calculator will be wiped before you sit for the exam!

The Essay

The essay is available on the ACT, but is no longer offered by the SAT. And the ACT has 215 questions, while the SAT has 154 questions – but you still only have about 3 hours for either test.

Formatting

And although they do have somewhat similar sections when it comes to English, writing, math, and reading, the questions and formatting will be slightly different.

The Jist of It

The SAT also tends to be better for students who are good at reading and critical thinking. The ACT is the better option if the student is strong with charts, data, and graphs.

So how can you know which exam to take? Is the ACT right for you, or is it the SAT? Understanding the differences, your strengths, and weaknesses is essential when it comes time to make this decision. Check out our article where we tackle the myth of “The ACT is harder than the SAT.”

Both exams are still timed, and both exams are still, for some students, extremely difficult. The best way to ace these exams is to start preparing well in advance. Utilize a study guide or join a study group if you need the motivation and accountability. It also helps to speak with your guidance counselor for test dates, exam times, and exam protocols.

Find out how your ACT and SAT scores affect your acceptance odds by using College Raptor’s College Match tool.

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