As you prepare for the important 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 1-36, with writing scores of 2-12. If students sign up for the optional writing exam, a five-minute break is given after science, and prior to the 40-minute writing exam.

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

The math section on the ACT requires a wide range of math concepts and requires formula memorization. It typically has a higher emphasis on geometry than the ACT 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 require any science. As a whole, ACT questions tend to be more “plug and play,” while SAT questions are more conceptual. Includes a science section.

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

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, with essay scores reported in 3 dimensions, of 2-8 each. The SAT was significantly reformatted in March 2016. The content is generally more challenging, but 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 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.

The reading section typically includes more complex reading passages than the ACT. It asks “best-evidence” questions, with selected passages including graphs and charts. While the reading section is longer than the ACT, test-takers also have more time per-passage than the ACT.

There is no science section on the SAT and the writing & language section is very 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 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.

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.

Consider which of these differences best match your overall skill set, and after taking a practice test of each, 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. 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. A difference of a few points can make a big difference in scholarship dollars!