The Differences Between the ACT and the SAT

( Get 800 ) By Dr. Steve Warner–

The ACT and SAT are both standardized tests that are used for college admissions. Students should be aware that they have a choice in which standardized test they choose to take. As of 2014, the SAT seems to be the more popular choice on the east and west coasts, and the ACT is more popular throughout the rest of the country (with a few exceptions). But every student should realize that the final decision as to which test to focus on is entirely up to them. This article provides important information about the differences between the two tests so that you can make a more well-informed decision.

Test Length and Structure

The ACT consists of 5 sections. Only 4 of these sections must be completed. The fifth section – writing – is optional. For the required sections, there is a 45 minute english section, a 60 minute math section, a 35 minute reading section, and a 35 minute science section. You are given 30 minutes for the optional writing section. This gives a total required testing time of 45 + 60 + 35 + 35 = 175 minutes, or 2 hours and 55 minutes. With the optional writing section, the total testing time increases to 3 hours and 25 minutes.

The SAT is a longer test than the ACT. It also consists of 5 sections, one being optional (the essay). For the required sections, there is a 65 minute reading section, a 35 minute grammar section, a 25 minute math section where a calculator is not allowed, and a 55 minute math section where a calculator is allowed. You are given 50 minutes for the optional essay section. This gives a total required testing time of 65 + 35 + 25 + 55 = 180 minutes, or 3 hours. With the optional essay, the total testing time is 3 hours and 50 minutes.

On both the ACT and SAT, the essay is optional, and it is NOT factored into the final score. Many schools do however require the essay, so if you are not yet certain about all the schools you will be applying to you may want to take the essay as a precaution.


The ACT is graded out of 36 points. The overall score is the average of the scores on each of the 4 required sections. Each of these is also graded out of 36 points.

The SAT is graded out of 1600 points. The overall score is the sum of the scores for verbal and math each consisting of a total of 800 points (note that the verbal score is made from both the reading and grammar sections, and the math score is made from the two math sections).

Conversion charts are easy to find for comparing ACT and SAT scores. For example, take a look here: ACT/SAT Conversion Chart (pages 7 and 15)


The ACT requires a faster pace than the SAT to get through each section. Let’s look at math as an example, and assume that a student is pacing themselves to answer every single math question. The student has an average of 1 minute to complete each math question on the ACT, compared to an average of 1 minute and 15 seconds per question on the “no calculator” math section on the SAT, and an average of about 1 minute and 25 seconds per question on the “calculator allowed” math section of the SAT.

It should be noted that for many students it may be counterproductive to attempt every question on a standardized test, but this kind of advice lies outside the scope of this article.

Science Section

The ACT has a science section and the SAT does not. It should be noted that the science section is really more about reading comprehension and interpreting data found in charts, figures and tables. Very little knowledge of science is actually required (although it could be argued that students with a stronger science background are at an advantage here).

Free Response Questions

Both math sections on the SAT have free response questions, also known as “grid-ins.” In these questions the student must give a numerical answer without having any choices to choose from.

Calculator Policy

On the ACT you can use a calculator for every question. There are two math sections on the SAT, one where a calculator can be used, and one where a calculator cannot be used. Students that are very calculator dependent tend to have a lot of trouble with the “no calculator” SAT math section.

Difficulty versus Trickiness and Complexity in Math

ACT math problems tend to be more straightforward than SAT problems, whereas some SAT math problems are more complex and may take more time to answer.  It is often much easier to understand ACT questions upon a first reading, whereas SAT questions tend to seem more confusing at first.

Many SAT math problems now go out of their way to model “real life” situations. In my opinion these types of questions tend to be more confusing and harder to read. The SAT also has more “multi-step” problems than the ACT (especially the more difficult problems that appear later in each section). You may have to complete 2, 3, or 4 distinct tasks to get to a solution.

Mathematics Covered

The ACT and SAT cover many of the same topics, but there are some differences. The following topics are covered on the ACT, but not on the SAT.

  • Arithmetic
  • Divisibility, Primes, GCD, LCM
  • Sequences and Series (especially arithmetic and geometric sequences)
  • Counting Problems
  • Laws of Sines and Cosines
  • Logarithms

Although there are no specific topics on the SAT that are not on the ACT, the SAT does place a heavier emphasis on Data Analysis, systems of equations and inequalities, and some more advanced precalculus concepts such as completing the square and divison of polynomials.

The ACT places a much heavier emphasis on Geometry than the SAT. Up to 50% of the ACT math questions can be Geometry and Trigonometry questions (much more Geometry than Trigonometry), whereas just a few math questions on the SAT  will come from these topics.

Final Note

The best way to decide which test you should focus on is to take a practice test for both the ACT and the SAT.  I strongly recommend using official practice tests from the testmakers themselves. Use a score comparison chart to compare your scores and you will see firsthand where your strengths lie.

Once you decide which test you will focus on make sure you take some time to prepare. I always recommend preparing for 10 to 20 minutes per day over a period of 3 to 4 months.