As you prepare for ACT and SAT tests and look ahead to college, you may ask, “How are the ACT and SAT different?” And how should you choose which test to take?

The ACT

This test is made up of four sections consisting of 215 questions and a total length of 2 hours, 55 minutes. Composite scores range from 1 to 36, with writing scores from 2 to 12. If students sign up for the optional writing exam, a five-minute break is given after science, prior to the 40-minute writing exam.

  • English (45 min)
  • Math (60 min)
  • Reading (35 min)
  • Science (35 min)
  • Writing (40 min, optional)

The Math section on the ACT covers a wide range of math concepts and requires formula memorization. It typically has a higher emphasis on geometry and all questions are multiple choice. On the ACT, math is 25% of your score.

The ACT Science section is a big differentiator between the two tests as the SAT does not have any science. However, the ACT Science section is actually a data interpretation test. Few students have much background in reading charts, tables, and graphs. Many, with practice, can quickly make significant improvements in this learned skill.

The English section is 35 minutes (compared to the SAT’s 65 minutes) with the average time per passage about 9 minutes (compared to the SAT’s 13 minutes). Passages on the ACT follow a standard subject/topic formula, so it’s possible to have a general idea of what to expect in the English section.

The English section on the ACT is very similar to the Reading & Writing section on the SAT. Over half of the questions focus on grammar and punctuation and the remaining focus on content and vocabulary.

The SAT

The new Digital SAT has two sections consisting of 124 total questions and a total length of 134 minutes, not including a 10-minute break between sessions. Composite scores range from 400 to 1600. The SAT was significantly reformatted and is now digital for 2024. The content is generally more challenging than that on the ACT, but more time is given per question.

  • Reading & Writing (two 32-minute modules, total 64 minutes)
  • Math (two 35-minute modules, total 70 minutes)

The Math section requires a deep understanding of algebra, but the test provides basic geometry formulas. The Bluebook app includes a built-in calculator, or you can still choose to bring your own from an approved list. Most (approximately 75%) questions are multiple-choice; but for some questions, you’ll need to provide a specific answer. These student-produced response (SPR) format questions may have multiple correct responses, but you’ll only provide one answer. Questions measure your ability to apply essential math concepts and about 30% of questions ask you to evaluate an in-context (worded) scenario and determine how to apply your math skills to find the answer. Each question covers one of four content areas:

There is no Science section on the SAT and the Reading & Writing section is similar to the ACT.

Which test is better: the ACT or SAT?

Knowing the differences is the first step. But which test is better? Neither one. It all depends on your student and how they think. If time permits, the best option is to take them both, the SAT once and the ACT once. Then focus your study efforts on the higher-scoring test, and take that one three more times.

College acceptance

While some states mandate that their juniors take either the ACT or SAT, all colleges accept either exam for admissions. In most cases, it makes sense to take both the ACT and SAT. The SAT allows more time per question, which may help slower readers or those who tend to panic with time limits. The ACT’s toughest questions are often less difficult than the SAT’s toughest questions. Consider which of these differences best match your overall skill set, and after taking each test once, decide which feels right to you.

When should I take the ACT or SAT?

Take a look at the coming year’s test dates and decide what fits best with your academic (AP, honors) and extracurricular activities. Many states and school districts offer a spring test date during school. For some students, the June or July tests are best because of fewer conflicts with school activities and more time to focus on test preparation. Sophomores, juniors and seniors should develop a game plan. Often ambitious students are wise to try their first ACT or SAT in the summer after sophomore year and ideally take either test twice junior spring and twice senior fall. Give yourself time to retake the test. A difference of a few points can make a big difference in scholarship dollars!