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?


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 improvement 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 what to expect in the English 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.


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 to 1600. The SAT was significantly reformatted in March 2016 and will become digital in 2023-2024. The content is generally more challenging than that on the ACT, but more time is given per question.

  • Reading (65 min)
  • Writing & Language (35 min)
  • Math (no calculator, 25 min; with calculator 55 minutes)

Calculators are only allowed on the second Math section and not all questions are multiple choice. Because there are two Math sections, Math consists of 50% of the total score. The math section on the SAT requires a deep understanding of algebra; the test provides basic formulas. Math questions fall into four categories:

  • Heart of Algebra (17 questions)
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis (17 questions)
  • Passport to Advanced Math (16 questions)
  • Additional Topics in Math (6 questions)

The Reading section typically includes more complex reading passages than the ACT’s English section does. It asks unique  “best-evidence” questions; some passages include graphs and charts. While the SAT’s Reading section is longer than the ACT’s English section, test-takers also have more time per-passage than they do on the ACT.

There is no Science section on the SAT and the Writing & Language 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!