What is the Difference Between the ACT and the SAT

Jun 18, 2020

The ACT and the SAT are both tests that are used for college admissions and scholarships. All colleges accept both scores. Neither test is preferred for college admissions over the other. Both tests have four sections given in a predetermined order. Both tests contain passage based reading and writing sections. They both test math concepts (although the topics covered and the presentation is different) and students abilities to interpret charts and graphs. They are similar in length. Without the essay, the ACT (2 hours and 55 minutes) is 5 minutes shorter than the SAT (3 hours). With the essay the ACT (3 hours 35 minutes) is 15 minutes shorter than the SAT (3 hours 50 minutes). On January 19th, 2021 College Board announced the essay portion of the SAT is being retired. Only 6 colleges and universities require the ACT Writing portion and 6 others recommend you take it. Check with the schools you are applying to before registering for the test. In the majority of cases, there is no need to take the essay portion.

 So what is the difference between the ACT and the SAT?


Differences between the ACT and the SAT

Time per Question - 

The SAT gives about 25 % more time per question. 





   52.5   seconds/question

   75 seconds/question

ACT English/ SAT Writing and Language

36 seconds/question

48 seconds/question


60 seconds/question

No calculator: 75 seconds/question

Calculator: 87 seconds/question


52.5 seconds/question


You need to remember however, that the questions are not the same. The differences in the various sections will be covered below. Make sure to take them into consideration as well. 


Science Section -

The ACT has a specific section to evaluate science reasoning including reading charts and graphs and testing hypotheses. It is no longer accurate to say that you don’t need scientific knowledge to answer the questions in this section. Recent ACT tests have contained a few (2 - 3) questions whose answers cannot be found in the passage. In order to answer these questions correctly, a student must have some prior knowledge of science. Here are some examples: the charge on an electron is negative, proteins are composed of amino acids, ions are charged particles. None of these require in depth knowledge and process of elimination may help with these questions. Students can miss 5 questions and still receive a score of 32 on the Science section so these few prior knowledge questions should not be a deciding factor.  Many people think that having a Science section is a difference between the ACT and the SAT. In fact both tests evaluate students ability to read charts and graphs as well as data interpretation. The ACT just puts it all in one section. 


Reading section -

Another difference between the ACT and the SAT is in the reading section. The SAT had 5 reading passages. One of them will be related to a historical document or a classic piece of literature. This passage will often be over 100 years old and will have both vocabulary and writing style that will be challenging for some readers. There will also be two passages that contain charts or graphs. Remember, since the SAT does not have a specific section to test those skills, they incorporate data analysis questions into the reading and language sections. 

The ACT has 4 reading passages. These will occur in the same order on EVERY test - Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Sciences. Each passage will have 10 questions. These passages will be relatively current. The majority have been written in the last 25 years. Unlike the Science section, all the information needed to answer the questions correctly can be found in the passage. 

In addition to the extra reading passage found on the SAT, a major difference between the ACT and the SAT is that the SAT asks you to identify the lines in the passage to support your answers. While you will be doing this to correctly answer the questions any way, some students find these line citation questions challenging because it can cause them to question their original answer. This is a good example of how the SAT tests students reasoning skills. It wants students to not only find the correct answer but be able to show WHY it is correct. 


Math Section - 

This is where the difference between the ACT and the SAT is quite obvious.

No Calculator Math Section -

The SAT has 20 math questions that students must answer without a calculator. While you can actually answer the vast majority of the questions on both the SAT and the ACT without a calculator,  the idea of not being allowed to use one impacts some student’s confidence. Some types of questions in this section ask students to identify the equation of a certain graph, or describe a graph given an equation. In other questions students are given two equations, one with constants and the other containing variables. They are asked to determine what values for the constants create either equivalent equations or equations with no solutions. The questions are very conceptual and any calculations required are basic, no crazy radicals, decimals or fractions. 


Free Response Questions - 

Another major difference between the ACT and the SAT is that the SAT has 5 questions on the no calculator portion and 8 questions on the calculator portion that require students to calculate their own response. These questions account for slightly more than 20% of all questions on the SAT math test. All of the questions on the ACT are multiple choice. If you are not really confident in your math abilities, the multiple choice option may be better for you. 


Formulas Given - 

The SAT provides students with 14 math facts. These all pertain to Geometry and Trigonometry. They include the number of degrees in a circle and triangle, formulas for the area of two dimensional  and volume for three dimensional figures, the Pythagorean Theorem, and Special Right Triangle relationships. I think this “advantage” is really overrated. The SAT has significantly fewer Geometry and Trigonometry problems than the ACT. In a survey of two complete SAT tests, I found only 3 questions which could be answered using the provided facts alone and only 2 more in which the facts might jump start a student’s reasoning. 


Types and Portions of Math Topics - 

As mentioned above, the SAT has significantly less Geometry than the ACT. The SAT has less than 10% Geometry questions while the ACT is between 30 - 40%. A student can expect to find one or maybe two basic trig questions on the SAT. There may be 4 to 5 questions on the ACT and the topics will be a little more challenging. The SAT tests primarily basic trigonometric relationships like sine, cosine and tangent, cofunction and even-odd identities.  The ACT includes Law of Sines, Law of Cosines. The ACT also has a few questions covering matrices, logarithms and conic sections. The math questions the SAT are more conceptual than the ACT. There are a large percentage of word problems, many of which ask students to describe the significance of a particular term or how altering that term might change the result. The vast majority of the problems on the ACT ask the student for a  numerical answer.  

Which Test Is Right For Me-

I always tell my students there is no magic pixie dust. You can definitely improve your scores by consistent practice and preparation. If you are a person who needs more time per question, you may want to consider the SAT, but remember the questions on the SAT are different in concept and form from the ACT. Don't take the SAT simply to get more time. If you are a more concrete person, the ACT might be more your style. Just remember, there are specific differences between the ACT and the SAT. If you really aren’t sure, it might be worth your time to take a practice test of each but unless you score significantly better on one than the other (and I have rarely seen this happen), choose one, develop a study plan and stick with it. 


For suggestions on how to prepare for the ACT or SAT, check out the following posts






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