SAT vs ACT: Which One Should You Take?

Emma Quinn
Published on
May 27, 2021

One of the most essential components of a student’s college application is their SAT or ACT score. Though they are both standardized tests that serve the same purpose, there are critical key differences between the two exams.

Many students often struggle to determine which is a better fit for them and will ultimately land them a better score. Here are some key differences between the SAT exam and the ACT exam.

1. The Sections

The SAT and ACT both have five sections, with one of them being the optional essay portion. However, the remaining four sections are dramatically different. While the SAT has reading, writing, and two math sections, the ACT has English, math, reading, and science. We will continue to break down these sections and compare the ACT vs SAT version of them.

2. SAT Writing vs ACT English

Known as the “grammar” section, these are the second and first parts of the SAT and ACT, respectively. SAT test-takers have 35 minutes to answer 44 multiple-choice questions, with each of the four passages having 11 questions. Although rare, these passages can sometimes include corresponding charts and graphs. ACT test-takers have 45 minutes to answer 75 multiple-choice questions, with each of the five passages having 15 questions.

In terms of the content of the questions, the SAT tends to focus on subject-verb writing agreement, while the ACT focuses more on vocabulary and idioms. The ACT also tends to focus more on punctuation than the SAT writing sections. For both exams, the first option is always “no error,” and this is the correct answer more times on the SAT than the ACT.

3. SAT Math vs ACT Math

There are very few similarities between the math portions of the two exams, most importantly the number of sections it entails. While the SAT splits the math exam into two parts, one with no calculator and one with a calculator, the ACT allows students to use their calculator for all of the math questions.

To break it down, the SAT gives 25 minutes for 15 multiple-choice questions and 5 grid-ins(aka short answers) for the no-calculator section. The calculator section then gives students 55 minutes to answer 30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-ins(including one extended thinking question).

The ACT is only one section, which is 60 minutes for 60 multiple-choice questions. Additionally, students are permitted to use their calculator for all 60 questions, however, there are some questions where it is too time-consuming to do so. While the SAT gives students a formula sheet, students taking the ACT will have to memorize all formulas they will need to use on the exam.

However, the content of both exams is fairly similar. Both deal with topics such as trigonometry and pre-calculus and the questions are mainly straightforward. Compared to the SAT, which focuses more on algebra, students have to answer far more geometry-related questions when taking the ACT. The ACT also includes questions on topics such as logarithms, planes, and matrices, which don’t appear on the SAT.

4. SAT Reading vs ACT Reading

The first part of the exam, the SAT reading section lasts 65 minutes and consists of 52 multiple-choice questions. Students will be required to read five passages and answer questions based on what they read.

In simple terms, the first passage is from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature, the second (or both the second and the third) is from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the Great Global Conversation. Another passage is on a social science topic from a field such as economics, psychology, or sociology, and the last or the last two look at foundational concepts or recent developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.

For the ACT, students are given 35 minutes to answer 45 multiple-choice questions. There are four reading passages (a pair of documents count as one passage) that are taken from the humanities, natural sciences, or social studies.

One difference in the actual questions between the SAT and ACT is that many SAT questions will follow up with “which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” To answer this question correctly, students must also have the previous answer correct. For the ACT, the multiple-choice questions are never related.

5. SAT Essay vs ACT Essay

This optional final part of the exam also has some differences. For starters, students are given 50 minutes for the SAT and 40 minutes for the ACT. The SAT grades students based on three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. The ACT grades students based on four dimensions: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use. Both include only one passage.

The scoring for both essays works in similar ways as well. For the SAT, two scorers will read your essay, and each will grade each dimension from 1-4. These scores are added; the highest possible essay score for the SAT is 8|8|8.

For the ACT, two readers will each grade the four dimensions from 1-6. These scores are then added, leading to four scores that are each out of 12. The average of these four scores leads to the final score. The highest possible essay score for the ACT is 12.

6. ACT Science

The most significant difference between the ACT and SAT is the last section on the ACT exam: The science portion. This applies only to the ACT, and it is also a 35-minute section that contains 45 multiple-choice questions. Similar to the reading exam, it includes six or seven short passages, which students will then need to answer questions on.

There are three types of questions: interpretation of data (16 questions), scientific investigation (10 questions), and evaluation of models, inferences, and experimental results (14 questions).

7. Scoring

Another clear difference between the SAT and ACT is the way students are graded. The SAT is graded out of 1600 points, with students receiving a score out of 800 for the reading/writing section and the math section. The two scores are simply added up. For the ACT, students are scored out of 36 for each of the four sections. The average of their four scores results in their composite score, which is also out of 36.

So which is better? Ultimately, it is up to the student. People who can read passages and respond to questions quickly may prefer the ACT. In contrast, those who like to analyze and connect different topics may prefer the SAT. No test is technically “easier,”. The level of difficulty depends on the student and their strengths.

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