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What Are the Differences Between the ACT and SAT?

By February 9, 2020February 10th, 2020No Comments

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What Are the Differences Between the ACT and SAT?

Because most colleges and universities accept both the ACT and SAT, students often wonder which test they should take. There are many similarities between the tests–they cover similar material and are approximately 3 hours long. However, key differences between the two tests may mean that one is a much better fit for your individual strengths and weaknesses.

At Mindfish, we offer a practice test package for $149. As part of this package, students will take one practice ACT and one practice SAT. You will then have a 45-minute consultation with one of our expert directors to discuss which test is a better fit for you based on your scores. For some initial factors to consider, see the discussion below.


The first differences are fairly obvious from the section breakdowns, scoring processes, and costs outlined in the table below.

Total Time2 hrs 55 mins (or 3 hrs 35 mins with optional writing section)3 hrs (or 3 hrs 50 mins with optional essay section)
  1. English, 45 mins, 75 questions
  2. Math, 60 mins, 60 questions
  3. Reading, 35 mins, 40 questions
  4. Science, 35 mins, 40 questions
  5. Writing (optional), 40 mins, 1 essay
  1. Reading, 65 mins, 52 questions
  2. Writing and Language, 35 mins, 44 questions
  3. Math No Calculator, 25 mins, 20 questions
  4. Math Calculator, 55 mins, 38 questions
  5. Essay (optional), 50 mins, 1 essay

English, math, reading, and science section scores each range from 1-36. The composite score is the average of your scores on the four sections, and therefore also ranges from 1-36.

The optional writing section is scored from 2-12 and does not count toward your composite score.

Math and verbal are each scored on a scale of 200-800. The composite score is the sum of the two section scores, ranging from 400-1600.

The optional essay is scored on three scales from 1-8 each and does not count toward your composite score.

Cost$50.50 without writing; $67 with writing$47.50 without essay; $64.50 with essay.

Time Per Question

One major factor to consider when choosing between the ACT and SAT is how well you deal with time management and time crunches on standardized tests. If you tend to run out of time on standardized tests, you might prefer the SAT over the ACT. Overall, the SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT on all sections of the exam, particularly on the reading and math sections.

Reading53 sec/question75 sec/question
ACT English/SAT Writing36 sec/question48 sec/question
Math60 sec/questionNo calculator: 75 sec/question; Calculator: 87 sec/question
Science53 sec/questionN/A

Science Section

Another major difference between the ACT and SAT is that the ACT contains a separate science section while the SAT does not. While this section does not actually require much specific science knowledge, it is focused on your ability to interpret scientific data, graphs, hypotheses, and experiment setups. If your data interpretation skills (or general reading skills) are strong, this additional section may benefit your score. However, if your data interpretation skills are weaker, having this section count as one quarter of your overall score might not be a good fit for you. The SAT does test some of these same scientific concepts, but includes a few data interpretation questions in the reading, writing, and math sections, allowing you to balance out weaker data interpretation skills with stronger verbal and math skills.

Math Content

The first major difference between the ACT and SAT math sections is that the SAT contains a section in which you are not allowed to use your calculator. This section contains only 20 questions, making it the shortest section of the test. If you struggle with solving math problems quickly without the use of a calculator, you might do better on the ACT math section.

When considering math content, both tests emphasize algebra. However, the ACT includes more questions on geometry and trigonometry. On the ACT, geometry accounts for between 35 and 45% of the math section, while on the SAT it accounts for only about 10%. On the ACT, trigonometry accounts for around 7% of the test, while it accounts for less than 5% of the SAT. The ACT also tests a few concepts like matrices, graphs of trigonometric functions, and logarithms that are not covered on the SAT at all. If you are most comfortable with algebra and data interpretation, the SAT math section may be a better fit for you. If your geometry and trigonometry skills are solid, the ACT math section might be a better fit for you.

Another big difference between the ACT and SAT math sections is that on the SAT you are provided with a formula reference sheet. On both of the math subsections of the SAT, you are given a reference sheet that contains 12 geometry functions and three laws. If you are good with formula memorization, this may not make a difference, but if you struggle to remember key formulas, the ACT may be tougher for you.

The last thing to consider related to math content is how much of a role math will play in your final score. On the ACT, math is one quarter of your final composite score, as it is averaged with your score on the other three subsections. On the SAT, however, math is half of your total score, making it more important for your final SAT score. If math isn’t a good subject for you, you might consider opting for the ACT because a low score on the math section will not be as detrimental to your final composite score.

Reading Content

There are also some differences between the ACT and SAT in the reading content covered. On the SAT, there are several questions that require you to identify the exact place in the passage that supports your answer. These questions build off of the questions that come before them, asking you to cite specific lines or paragraphs in support of your previous answer. If a student misses the first question of the pair, the second question is likely to be missed as well, which could be detrimental to their reading score. These types of questions do not appear on the ACT. If you think you may not be a strong reader, the ACT may be a better test for you as a result.

Optional Essay Content

The last major difference between the ACT and SAT is in how the optional essay section is set up. On the SAT, you are provided with a passage for which you must analyze the author’s argumentation. For the SAT essay section, you need good reading comprehension skills and an ability to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of an argument. On the ACT writing section, you read a short passage about a particular issue, analyze three provided perspectives on the issue, and develop your own perspective on the question asked. For the ACT essay, you need to be comfortable distinguishing between multiple perspectives on an issue and providing sufficient evidence to back up the perspective that you ultimately choose.