ACT vs SAT: which one is a better choice for you?


In late 2015, we wrote about this very topic. However, College Board has since updated and changed the SAT. The ACT has also undergone some changes. Consequently, we decided it was time to write an updated post breaking down each test.


Previously, colleges had a preference for a certain set of scores, which would be detailed on the admissions page of their websites. Nowadays, many schools are accepting both ACT and SAT scores. This means that the decision falls to you. As the student, you have to decide for yourself which test to take.  Although both the ACT and the SAT are standardized tests that determine readiness for college, there are some differences—and similarities—between the two.


Looking for a way to decide which test to take? Well, then, keep reading! We have some general information that should help you make an informed choice.


ACT vs SAT: Math


ACT Math

SAT Math

60 questions, 60 minutes58 questions, 80 minutes
Calculator allowed on entire test25-minute no-calculator section, 20 questions

55-minute calculator section, 38 questions

All questions are multiple choice

45 of 58 questions are multiple choice;

13 of 58 questions are grid-in

Questions are more straightforward, checking

for memorization and application of a concept

Questions involve more reading comprehension and are

designed to confuse you if not you don’t read carefully

No formula sheets providedFormula box provided on text contains major

area & volume formulas, as well as triangle facts

Covers more material but not as in-depth:

Pre-algebra — 20-25%

Elementary algebra — 15-20%

Intermediate algebra — 15-20%

Coordinate geometry — 15-20%

Plane geometry — 20-25%

Trigonometry — 5-10%

More in-depth questions covering fewer concepts:

Heart of Algebra — 33%

Problem Solving and Data Analysis — 28%

Passport to Advanced Math — 29%

Additional Topics in Math — 10%

More Geometry and Trig questionsMore Algebra and Data Analysis questions
Correct answers earn 1 point, incorrect answers earn 0 points


Thoughts from the Tutor:


According to Learning Ascent’s math expert, Zach, “If you’re better at math or not so good at finishing tests on time, the SAT is better.” As detailed in the graphic above, the SAT gives students more time to complete the math section, even when it is split into two parts.


Another difference Zach has noticed between the ACT and SAT is the grid-in problems. While the grid-in problems benefit students who are confused by multiple-choice questions, they cause a lot of problems for our students when they take practice tests. For students who prefer tests to be completely multiple-choice, the ACT might be a better option.



ACT vs SAT: Science


One of the biggest differences between the ACT and SAT is that the former has a science section while the latter does not. On the ACT science section, prior science knowledge isn’t really necessary. For instance, you won’t need to remember any chemistry formulas or the exact stages of mitosis. Instead, you must interpret graphs, analyze hypothetical experiments, and comprehend conflicting viewpoints on different scientific topics. To prepare for this section of the test, you should learn how to quickly read graphs and charts.


Although the SAT does not have a specific science section, it does contain a few science-adjacent concepts. For instance, on the math section, you might encounter statistics or scatter plots. Graph analysis also shows up in all sections. We’ll expand on this in the Reading and Writing subheadings.


ACT vs SAT: Reading


ACT ReadingSAT Reading
40 questions, 35 minutes52 questions, 65 minutes
Three single passages and one set of paired passages—one each from prose fiction, social science, humanities and natural scienceFour single passages and one set of paired passages—one from prose fiction, two from natural science, two from social science
Text onlyOne history/social science and one natural science passage will have one or two graphics that you will have to interpret along with the passage
Main idea, Vocab in context, Inference,

Detail oriented Questions

Main idea, Vocab in context, Inference, Evidence Support, Data Reasoning, Technique, Detail-Oriented Questions
Questions are in random orderQuestions go in chronological order for a passage i.e. content covered earlier in passage will show up in first few questions of that passage
Deals mostly with reading comprehensionRequires closer analysis of specific parts of passage as well as more understanding of author’s organization and structure


Thoughts from the Tutor:


As the resident Language Arts expert, a lot of my teaching time in the SAT Prep course centers around the Command of Evidence questions. These questions are unique to the SAT, and they are one of the major differences between ACT and SAT reading. The SAT command of evidence questions require you to identify which lines best support the answer given to the previous question. Many students find these questions tricky. As a result, students sometimes prefer the ACT.


Another difference between the tests that I want to expand upon is the prose fiction piece. Both of the tests have this passage first. On the ACT, the fiction piece is usually a contemporary work. However, the SAT always chooses fiction pieces from classical literature. Because of the vocabulary and writing style, the SAT fiction pieces are often more difficult for many students to understand. If you enjoy English and can easily interpret more classic texts (i.e. excerpts from Victorian novels), then you might prefer the SAT reading section. However, if you struggle to comprehend and interpret fiction, you should make it simpler for yourself and choose the ACT.


ACT vs SAT: English/Writing and Language


ACT EnglishSAT Writing and Language
75 questions, 45 minutes44 questions, 35 minutes
Five passages with 15 questions eachFour passages with 11 questions each
Questions are in random order of difficultyQuestions are in random order of difficulty
Sentence structure — 20-25%

Grammar usage — 15-20%

Punctuation — 10-15%

Style — 15-20%

Strategy — 15-20%

Organization — 10-15%

Standard English Conventions (sentence structure, conventions of usage/punctuation) — 20 questions, or 45%

Expressions of Ideas (development, organization, and effective language use)— 24 questions, or 55%

One of four subscores on the entire testScore is added to Reading score to calculate total Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score
Text onlyTwo passages will have graphics
Word choice questions focus more on nuanced differences between common wordsWord choice questions deal with higher-level vocabulary
Asks about main ideaMain idea questions are only in the Reading section


Thoughts from the Tutor:


Both of these tests will gauge your understanding of virtually the same grammar concepts. However, the ACT has many more questions to get through. On the flip side, the SAT usually features more challenging vocabulary words. Nevertheless, these sections are probably the most closely related to each other when it comes to ACT vs SAT.


ACT vs SAT: Essay


ACT WritingSAT Essay
Possible 12 points, 40 minutesPossible 24 points, 50 minutes
Argumentative EssayRhetorical Analysis
Asks for your opinion on a topicDoes not want you to share your opinion


Thoughts from the Tutor:


With both the ACT and the SAT essay, you get a lot of background information to aid you in writing the optional essay portion. They are both very clear on what they expect students to produce in their responses. This is a nice change because when I took the ACT, the prompt was less clear and much more limited!


On the ACT, you must read a paragraph on a topic (usually a current event or ethical issue). You must also read three viewpoints on that topic, which are printed in the test. As you write your response, you must:

  • examine and assess the viewpoints provided
  • express and develop your point of view on the topic
  • analyze the connections between your point of view and those provided.


On the other hand, the SAT essay requires much more analysis. You will read a passage that presents that argument, and then your job is to analyze the strong points of that argument. Your ethos, logos, and pathos knowledge will serve you well in this essay.


Neither essay is easier or harder than the other. As with the rest of the sections, it comes down to your personal preference.


The Takeaway


Perhaps the most significant difference between the ACT and SAT is timing. Almost across the board, the SAT gives students more time to complete each section. As I mentioned earlier, if you take things a little bit more slowly and like to double-check your answers, the SAT may be more your speed! But if you’re still not sure, it never hurts to take both tests. Between personal experience and the information from this post, you’ll learn which one works better for you. One last piece of advice: make sure that, whatever you choose, you take the test multiple times! You’ll be more likely to get a higher score, and you might even get a chance to superscore.


And as always, if you’re interested in ACT and SAT prep, please consider our Learning Ascent services! Give us a call at 630-587-2795 to get more information.


Learning Ascent credits Kyle Pearce with the image used in the header.

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