A Quick Overview of ACT and SAT Differences

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

Flickr user Bryon Lippincott

As of March 2016, the SAT did a major revamp of the format and types of questions, so the two tests are now much more similar than they were before. Today, though the two tests are more similar, there are still some differences you need to be aware of.


The SAT has 1600 possible points. The test is comprised of three main sections: Reading (400 points), Writing & Language (400 points), and Mathematics (800 points). The points earned in each section are combined. The full test is 3 hours long—3 hours and 50 minutes if you take the Essay.

The new SAT question layout is more straightforward than before. It takes less time to figure out just what the question is asking you to answer.

One of the main points to remember about the SAT is that there is a Reading section and a Writing & Language section on the SAT. The Essay portion of the exam is now optional, with only one prompt where you’re asked to analyze a given persuasive essay.

Also, there are two Math sections—one that allows calculator use, and one that doesn’t. The content focuses on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.


Out of a total 36 points, the ACT has four sections—Math, English, Science, and Reading. Each are worth 36 points and the scores are averaged together. In total the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long—3 hours 35 minutes with the Essay.

The ACT focuses more on Mathematics than the SAT does, requiring students to memorize the formulas of more advanced algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

One thing the ACT has that the SAT doesn’t is a dedicated Science section. The Science questions are based on interpretation & analysis, and reasoning & problem solving.

The Essay section is also optional, but asks you to write a persuasive essay instead.

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. Purchase 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.

Check out how your ACT/SAT scores affect your acceptance odds with College Raptor!

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