As students prepare for these important exams and look ahead to college, many ask, “What’s the difference between the ACT and SAT?” Most people know these two standardized tests are different. But what are those differences, 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 1-36, with writing scores of 2-12.

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

The English section on the ACT is very similar to the Writing & Language section on the SAT. Nearly two-thirds of the questions focus on grammar and punctuation, and the remaining questions focus on content and vocabulary.

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

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

The ACT Science section is a big differentiator between the two tests as the SAT does not have a science section.

The SAT:

This test is made up of four sections consisting of 154 total questions and a total length of 3 hours. Composite scores range from 400-1600. The SAT was significantly reformatted in March 2016, and while the content is generally more challenging, more time is given per question.

  • Reading Comprehension (65 min)
  • Writing & Language (35 min)
  • Math without calculator (25 min)
  • Math with calculator (55 min)

The Reading section typically includes more complex reading passages than the ACT. It asks “best-evidence” question pairs where students must find the sentence(s) in the passage that provide support for their answer to a previous question.  While the reading section is longer than the ACT, test-takers have more time per-passage than the ACT. 

The Writing & Language section is very similar to the ACT with the majority of the questions focusing on grammar and punctuation. The remaining questions focus on content and vocabulary. With the reformatting of the SAT in March 2016, the vocabulary tested is no longer as challenging as it was previously.

The Math section on the SAT requires a deeper understanding of algebra, but the test provides basic formulas. Calculators are only allowed on the second half of the math section, and not all questions are multiple-choice. Because there are two math sections, math consists of 50% of the total score.

There is no Science section on the SAT, but knowledge of interpreting charts, tables, and graphs is tested in the Reading section as well as the Writing & Language section.

Which is better: the ACT or SAT?

Knowing the differences between these two tests is the first step. But which one 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 twice and the ACT twice. Then focus your study efforts on the higher-scoring test.

College acceptance

While some states mandate either the ACT or SAT, all colleges accept either exam for admissions.

For most students 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. But if you excel at science, the ACT might be right for you. Consider your skill set and, after taking both, decide where to invest your time and effort.

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 for juniors 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. Remember, it’s best to take either test at least four times: twice junior spring and twice senior fall. Give yourself time to retake the test. An increase of just a few points can make a big difference in scholarship dollars!


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