Understanding the Differences Between the ACT and SAT

I’ve written a lot in the past about the ACT and SAT, both together and separately, so readers of my previous posts—I know there’s at least one of you out there; shout out to my mom—will already have a pretty clear idea of what the ACT and SAT are and what they’re used for. For anybody who’s unfamiliar, however, a quick recap: the SAT and ACT are the two tests used by colleges and universities in the admissions process to assess students’ readiness for college-level coursework. Though many schools no longer require that you submit test scores with your application, some still do, and SAT/ACT score thresholds can also be a component of some scholarships.

One of the biggest mistakes that students make when preparing for these tests is thinking that it doesn’t matter which one they take. This is true from an admissions standpoint, in that schools genuinely don’t care whether you submit ACT scores or SAT scores; however, it’s not true at all from a test-taking standpoint. The reality is that although these two tests have similarities, they’re very different in some key ways, and most students are better suited for one over the other. In this post, I’ll help you understand the differences between the ACT and the SAT so that you can choose the test that fits you best, thereby making the prep process more effective and more efficient. Let’s jump in.

Table of Contents

Differences Between the ACT and SAT: Format and Structure

I’ll begin by giving an overview of each test in a few key areas. These details are unlikely to be the sole reason that you choose one test over the other, but they’ll provide a helpful framework for our more in-depth look at each test later on.

The ACT: Sections & Timing

The ACT is composed of four multiple-choice sections, as well as an optional Writing section. The sections always appear in the same order and always have the same structure and timing; see the table below for a detailed layout of the test.

Section NameTime Limit (Standard)Number of QuestionsAvg. Time / QuestionAdditional Details
English45 minutes7536 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 5 passages; students have an average of 9 minutes per passage
Math60 minutes601 minuteMath is the only section that increases in difficulty as the section progresses; students should expect to spend more time per question at the end of the section and less time per question at the beginning
Reading35 minutes4052.5 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 4 passages; students have an average of 8 minutes 45 seconds per passage
Science35 minutes4052.5 secondsQuestions are divided approximately evenly between 6 passages; students have an average of roughly 5 minutes 50 seconds per passage
Writing (Optional)40 minutes1 prompt40 minutesThe time limit imposed on students in the Writing section includes every part of the writing process: brainstorming, outlining, writing, proofreading, etc.

The ACT: Section Composition

  • English: This section can be divided into questions that test grammar mechanics (e.g. punctuation, subject-verb agreement) and questions that test rhetorical concepts (e.g. transitions, conclusion sentences).
  • Math: The range of material tested in this section is quite large. Students should expect to see topics ranging from things they learned in 7th grade (or earlier!) and probably haven’t touched since—e.g. GCF and LCM, remainders—to those that they might not learn until near the end of Algebra II, e.g. conic sections.
  • Reading: The four passages in this section include Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Questions will require students to summarize the main point of a sizable portion of text, retrieve specific details from the passage, and consider the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of the passage. One passage will be split into two shorter texts, with questions asking about the two texts both separately and together.
  • Science: Questions in this section will require students to retrieve and synthesize information from graphs, charts, and tables under a strict time limit.

ACT Scoring

You’ll receive a scaled score for each section of the ACT that is based on the number of questions you answered correctly in that section and how difficult the section you took was compared to those of previous years. Scaled scores range from 1-36, and your four scaled scores are averaged (and then rounded using standard rounding rules) to obtain your composite score for the entire test, which is also on a 1-36 scale.

ACT Cost

The standard ACT registration fee for US-based students is $66 without Writing and $91 with Writing. Additional fees may apply if you’re taking the test outside of the US, if you register during the late registration period, or if you need to change your test date or test center.

The SAT: Sections & Timing

The SAT also consists of four sections which are always administered in the same order, but it one-ups the ACT when it comes to a Writing section: the SAT no longer includes an essay of any kind except in specific testing locations. Though most of the test is multiple-choice, there are several student-produced response questions, or grid-ins, in each Math section. See the table below for more details.

Section NameTime Limit (Standard)Number of QuestionsAvg. Time / QuestionAdditional Details
Reading65 minutes521 minute 15 secondsQuestions are divided between 5 passages, with 10-11 questions per passage; students have an average of 13 minutes per passage
Writing & Language35 minutes4448 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 4 passages; students have an average of 8 minutes 45 seconds per passage
Math (No Calculator)25 minutes20 (15 MC, 5 grid-in)1 minute 15 secondsBoth Math sections increase in difficulty as the questions progress; students should expect to spend more time per question at the end of the section and less time per question at the beginning
Math (With Calculator)55 minutes38 (30 MC, 8 grid-in)1 minute 27 secondsNote that the difficulty progression resets at the beginning of the grid-in portion of each Math section: the multiple-choice questions go from easy to hard, then the grid-in questions reset at easy and start the progression over

SAT Section Composition

  • Reading: The five passages in this section include one excerpt from a fictional text, which is always the first passage; two social science / history passages; and two natural science passages. Questions will require students to summarize the main point of a sizable portion of text, retrieve specific details from the passage, consider the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of the passage, and select excerpts that support their answers to previous questions. One passage will be split into two shorter texts, with questions asking about the two texts both separately and together. Additionally, two passages will include an accompanying graph or chart, with 1-3 questions requiring students to synthesize information from the figure with details from the passage.
  • Writing & Language: This section can be divided into questions that test grammar mechanics (e.g. punctuation, subject-verb agreement) and questions that test rhetorical concepts (e.g. transitions, conclusion sentences). Additionally, two passages will include an accompanying graph or chart, with 1-2 questions requiring students to synthesize information from the figure with details from the passage.
  • Math: The two Math sections test essentially the same content pool, with some slight variations in focus between the two (e.g. the With Calculator section typically includes more statistics-related problems). The content pool is smaller than that of the ACT Math section, with more of an emphasis on concept fluency than on fast problem-solving. Students can expect a heavy focus on algebraic concepts (e.g. linear equations, quadratic equations), with a sprinkling of geometry and statistics to go with it.

SAT Scoring

You’ll receive a scaled score for each section of the SAT that is based on the number of questions you answered correctly in that section and how difficult the section you took was compared to those of previous years. Scaled scores range from 200-800 in Math and 100-400 in each of Reading and Writing & Language. Your four scaled scores are summed to obtain your composite score for the entire test, which ranges from 400-1600.

SAT Cost

The standard SAT registration fee for US-based students is $60. Additional fees may apply if you’re taking the test outside of the US, if you register during the late registration period, or if you need to change your test date or test center.


Looking To Improve Your Score on the ACT or SAT?


Differences Between the ACT and SAT: Section-by-Section Breakdown

Now that we’ve covered the foundational information about each test, I’ll talk a little bit about each individual section and the differences between the ACT’s version and the SAT’s version.

The Differences Between the ACT Reading & Reading Sections

ACT Reading

As I mentioned above, this section consists of four passages, always in the same order: Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Questions will require students to perform tasks like summarizing the main point of a sizable portion of text, retrieving specific details from the passage, and considering the meaning of a vocabulary word in the context of the passage. One passage will be split into two shorter texts, with questions asking about the two texts both separately and together.

Because of the aggressive pace of the section, questions in ACT Reading tend to be very superficial, with the correct answer sometimes being lifted word for word from the text. Effective strategies for students here tend to focus on reading as little as possible and as efficiently as possible, as relatively few testers are capable of reading the entire passage and answering the questions effectively while still finishing within the time limit. It’s imperative that you work from a question-centric perspective rather than a passage-centric perspective: focus on finding the information needed to answer the questions, not trying to absorb and comprehend the entire passage and then answering the questions from memory.

SAT Reading

The five passages in this section include one excerpt from a fictional text, which is always the first passage; two social science / history passages; and two natural science passages. As on the ACT, most questions will require students to summarize the main point of a sizable portion of text, retrieve specific details from the passage, or consider the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of the passage; however, SAT Reading also adds in proof-pair questions, which ask testers to select excerpts that support their answers to previous questions.

One passage will be split into two shorter texts, with questions asking about the two texts both separately and together. Additionally, two passages will include an accompanying graph or chart, with 1-3 questions requiring students to synthesize information from the figure with details from the passage.

SAT Reading requires somewhat less of a focus on time management for most students than does ACT Reading, and many testers will find that they actually have enough time to read the entirety of each passage. The focus in this section for most students should be reading in a way that allows them to answer questions as they go; SAT passages are probably a bit denser and more opaque than ACT passages on average, so trying to hold a bunch of information in your head at one time is a mistake. Additionally, make sure you’ve spent plenty of time practicing proof-pairs: this question-type is different from anything you will have seen on previous standardized tests, and it’s essential that you have a strategy to deal with them.

TL;DR: Key Differences Between ACT Reading and SAT Reading

Timing, timing, timing. This will be a theme in our discussions of the SAT versus the ACT, but it’s probably most salient when it comes to Reading. ACT Reading moves extremely quickly, and even though the questions are commensurately more straightforward than those in SAT Reading, the speed of the section can still be very difficult for some students to master. If you’re a fast reader or very good at skimming text, you’re likely to do very well on ACT Reading, since the speed is by far the biggest barrier to entry. On the other hand, if you’re someone who needs to read from start to finish in order to comprehend a piece of text, you may be more comfortable with SAT Reading, where the focus is more on analysis than on comprehension under time pressure.

The Differences Between the ACT and SAT English Sections

ACT English

This section can be divided into questions that test grammar mechanics (e.g. punctuation, subject-verb agreement) and questions that test rhetorical concepts (e.g. transitions, conclusion sentences), with probably about a 3:2 ratio of grammar questions to rhetoric questions. English is probably the section with the smallest amount of high-level strategy needed to do well: you pretty much read through the passages quickly, pausing to answer questions as you go and rereading or reading ahead for context as necessary. There’s also not a ton of timing stress here for most students: though this is the section with the least amount of time allotted per question, it’s also the section where the questions tend to move the fastest.

Instead of focusing on speed, most of your time working on this section should be spent learning the grammar rules that are tested and recognizing the patterns in individual question-types and in the section as a whole. Many students dread this section when they first start preparing for the ACT, as they assume that they’ll be relearning every concept they slept through in middle school English class. In reality, though, this section mainly focuses on 7-10 core concepts and tests you on them in different ways. The more you’re able to start recognizing each new problem as a slightly different version of questions you’ve seen in the past, the better you’ll do here.

SAT Writing & Language

This section can be divided into questions that test grammar mechanics (e.g. punctuation, subject-verb agreement) and questions that test rhetorical concepts (e.g. transitions, conclusion sentences). Additionally, two passages will include an accompanying graph or chart, with 1-2 questions requiring students to synthesize information from the figure with details from the passage.

You’ll probably notice that the description of this section looks almost identical to the description of ACT English; that’s not a coincidence, and it’s not because I’m lazy. (I mean, I am lazy, but that’s not the reason.) No, the descriptions of these sections are more or less the same because the sections themselves are more or less the same. There are a couple of new question-types that do show up in SAT W&L—namely, ‘combining sentences’ questions and graph/chart questions for some reason—but otherwise, pretty much just go back and reread the portion about ACT English.

TL;DR: Key Differences Between ACT English and SAT Writing & Language

Like… not much, man. Not much. As I said above, these two sections are very close to being substantively identical; you will have slightly more time per question on SAT W&L than on ACT English, but as mentioned earlier, timing tends to be less of an issue for students on this portion of the test than it is on any other, so that’s generally a pretty negligible difference for most students. At the end of the day, this section should not be a reason that you take one of these tests over the other.

The Differences Between the ACT and SAT Math Sections

ACT Math

The range of material tested in this section is quite large. Students should expect to see topics ranging from things they learned in 7th grade (or earlier!) and probably haven’t touched since—e.g. GCF and LCM, remainders—to those that they might not learn until near the end of Algebra II, such as conic sections. This sizable span of possible topics can make preparing for ACT Math intimidating, and it’s very important that students spend their prep time wisely: don’t waste time memorizing the equation for an ellipse if you don’t know how to solve a system of linear equations, as the latter is likely to come up 2-3 times in a given section while the former will appear once if at all.

Another important aspect of ACT Math is that it’s often the only section where students will be challenged by both the speed and the content. One minute per question may not sound too bad, particularly compared to the other sections; however, remember that Math is the section where you’ll have by far the most work to do for each problem. Make sure that you’re budgeting the appropriate amount of time for each portion of the section: you should expect that #55 is going to take you noticeably more time than #5, so plan accordingly.

Finally, be sure that you’re balancing both content and strategy in your approach to this section. Because of the breadth of material tested, it’s extremely difficult to go into ACT Math confident that you’ll know every topic that could appear, but you also don’t need to. Most questions will have what I refer to as a ‘side door’ method, or a way that you can get to the correct answer without necessarily being 100% comfortable with the material being tested—graphing equations in your calculator is a great example of this, as is plugging in values for variables. Be on the lookout for these opportunities, as they’ll often save you time and effort.

SAT Math

The two SAT Math sections test essentially the same content pool, with some slight variations in focus between the two (e.g. the With Calculator section typically includes more statistics-related problems). The content pool is smaller than that of the ACT Math section, with more of an emphasis on concept fluency than on fast problem-solving. Students can expect a heavy focus on algebraic concepts (e.g. linear equations, quadratic equations), with a sprinkling of geometry and statistics to go with it.

As with Reading, SAT Math gives you more time per question than does the ACT; also as with Reading, however, you should expect the average question to involve a bit more work. Problems often necessitate several steps and require that students show something much closer to a mastery of the concept being tested.

The inclusion of grid-in problems is another defining characteristic of SAT Math: these “short answer” problems require students to bubble in their answer directly rather than picking from four possible choices. This makes them extremely unfriendly to standard test-taking techniques like process of elimination or educated guessing, and as such it’s imperative that you not run out of time without answering the grid-ins. Remember that you have a 1/4 chance of guessing even the most difficult multiple-choice question correctly, but only a 1/104 (give or take a few for decimal points and slashes) chance of correctly guessing the answer to the easiest grid-in ever created.

TL;DR: Key Differences Between ACT Math and SAT Math

Say it with me now: the ACT is faster, the SAT requires more work. If you’re comfortable budgeting your time across a single long section and problem-solving under time pressure, you may find the ACT’s Math section more compatible with your test-taking “personality”; if you’re more of a methodical worker, you might be better suited to SAT Math.

Though timing is a big difference between these two sections, it’s far from the only difference. The entirety of ACT Math is calculator-active, whereas more than half of the SAT Math questions don’t allow you to use a calculator. That’s a definite consideration, particularly if you’re one of those calculator acolytes who prays at the altar of Texas Instruments for the answers to confounding questions such as ‘what is 3×5?’.

The range of content is also a significant difference between these two sections. If you are an algebra wizard, SAT Math was made for you; if you’re more inclined towards geometry, however, and/or if you’re comfortable with a wide range of material, ACT Math may fit your strengths more closely.

The Differences Between the ACT & SAT Science Sections

ACT Science

Questions in this section will require students to retrieve and synthesize information from graphs, charts, and tables under a strict time limit. It’s important to note, however, that nowhere in that sentence did I say anything about actually, you know, knowing science content. That’s because by and large, this section doesn’t test it: on average, only about 3-4 questions per section will require some discrete piece of general scientific knowledge (e.g. the reactants and products of photosynthesis or how the pH scale is structured).

Instead, it’s probably easier to think of this section as a second Reading section, one where you’re pulling information from charts/graphs, tables, and short paragraphs rather than longer textual excerpts. The text portion of each Science passage will contain scientific terms and use scientific language, so this obviously isn’t the exact same as the Reading section; however, it requires most of the same skills, and it’s much closer to another Reading section than it is to what most students imagine when they hear the phrase ‘Science section’.

As I alluded to above, the most challenging part of this section is once again the pacing. Science is structured the same way as Reading (40 questions in 35 minutes), and meeting the demands of the time limit is difficult for the same reasons it is in Reading: you’ll have to retrieve, comprehend, and apply the specific piece(s) of information each question requires in less than one minute per question. As such, most of your practice here should focus on timing. Though this section can feel prohibitively fast at first, most students are able to increase their speed significantly through practice, since increased familiarity with the “anatomy” of the passages and the patterns inherent to the questions typically results in improved pacing.

TL;DR: Key Differences Between ACT Science and SAT (Lack of) Science

The short and sweet version: the ACT has a Science section, the SAT doesn’t (though as we’ve covered above, the SAT does incorporate some scientific content into its Reading and Writing & Language sections).

This is absolutely a big difference between the tests, but probably not as big as many students think. I’ve heard any number of students tell me that they’re planning to take the SAT primarily because they “don’t like science”. While this is totally valid, it’s also not by itself a reason to dismiss the ACT. Yes, you need to be able to look at a graph without throwing up and passing out to do well on ACT Science; however, your evaluation of this section and its impact on your testing decision should focus more on the timing component than on the scientific knowledge component.

Differences Between the ACT and SAT: How to Choose

Now that we’ve gone through each of these tests in detail, let’s finish by summarizing the main things you should consider when choosing between the ACT and the SAT.

  • Timing: In case this theme hasn’t been hammered home enough yet, I’ll say it one more time—the ACT moves faster, but the average SAT question requires more work. If you’re able to move quickly enough to complete the ACT sections, you’ll likely find that you’re able to improve your accuracy noticeably with practice, as the questions tend to be a bit more superficial than those on the SAT. Similarly, if you’re approved for extended time on both tests but don’t typically use every second of your ET in school, you may find it easier to master the speed of the ACT than the content of the SAT.
  • Math Ability: You probably noticed that there’s a difference in the amount of math on these two tests: though there are technically more math questions on the ACT, the Math section makes up only 1/4 of your score on that test versus 1/2 of your score on the SAT. If you tend to be substantially stronger in the humanities than in math, this is definitely a point in favor of the ACT; on the other hand, if math is far and away your best subject in school, you may be more naturally suited for the SAT.
  • Accommodations: Each test has a separate process for getting approved for testing accommodations. If for whatever reason you’re approved by one test but not by the other, or if the two tests approve you for different levels of accommodations (like 1.5x ET versus 2x ET, which has happened to some of my students before), that will certainly factor into your decision. With this in mind, make sure you begin the accommodation application process for both tests as early as you can, since you want to be sure that you have all of the relevant information before you pick your test.

There are of course other factors that may weigh into your decision, and I’ve covered many of them earlier in this post; however, these tend to be the big three for many students. Remember that, barring any weird exceptions of which I’m not aware—which may very well exist; always do your own research on the websites of the schools to which you’re applying!—schools genuinely don’t care whether you take the ACT or the SAT. This is a choice that you should be making based on your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker so that you can put forth the most compelling picture of yourself possible on your college applications.

Differences Between the ACT and SAT: Wrapping Things Up

As a final note: while test selection truly is a very important part of the process of preparing for and taking the ACT or SAT, it’s often not quite as important for students as how they actually prepare. Whichever test you choose, be sure that you build in plenty of time to learn the relevant content and strategies, take timed practice sections, and review your mistakes. It’s possible to get an awesome score on the SAT even if you might have been slightly better suited for the ACT, and vice versa; however, it’s very difficult to do well on either test without putting in the work. And if you’re looking for somebody to give you a hand along the way, give us a shout; we know some people who can help.

Frequently Asked Questions About the ACT vs. SAT

Is the ACT harder than the SAT, or vice versa?

Yes and no. As we covered in this post, the two tests are very different in a couple of key ways; that doesn’t mean that one is harder than the other, but it does mean that one of them might FEEL harder to you because of who you are as a test-taker. At the end of the day, that’s really what makes test selection so important: you’re likely to end up with a higher score if you take the test that feels easier to you.

Do colleges prefer SAT or ACT?

As a general rule, schools no longer have any sort of preference for one test over the other. With that being said, there are a TON of schools in this country, not to mention abroad, and it’s very difficult to keep up with all of their admissions requirements; as a result, I can’t say conclusively that there isn’t a single exception to this rule. As I’ve said in other posts, the best place to get information is directly from the source: go to the admissions pages for the schools you know you want to apply to and research their testing policies for yourself to ensure that you’re working with the most accurate info possible.

How many times can you take the SAT or ACT?

As many as you want! There’s literally no limit on the number of times you can sit for the SAT or ACT.

As a general rule, I recommend that any student test at least twice, for various reasons. The first and most obvious reason is simply that, statistically speaking, you are likely to score better on your second test. The College Board reports that 2 out of 3 students will perform better on a second exam, and the ACT has released similar statistics in the past as well. Furthermore, many colleges will now ‘superscore’ if you submit results from multiple test dates, meaning that they will select your highest section scores from each test sitting and consider those for your admission decision.

Differences Between the ACT and SAT: Related Reading

How Do I Determine If I Should Take the ACT or the SAT?

Do I Need the SAT for College? Deciding Whether to Take the SAT in 2023

ACT Reading Tips To Boost Your Score in 2023

What to Bring to the ACT: Essential Items for Test Day

What’s a Good PSAT Score For 2023?

Upcoming SAT Test Dates for 2023 and Beyond

How Much Is the SAT? An Overview of Costs & Registration Fees

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