ACT vs SAT: Which Test is Best for You?

sat vs act

Both the ACT test and the SAT test are nationally recognized college admissions tests accepted by all US universities. And since the 2016 redesign of the SAT, the tests have many similarities and only a few differences. 

One test is not better than the other – but one may be better for you. There are differences in timing, scoring, and content that could mean you favor one test. The guide below lays out the facts – take them in, take a practice ACT and a practice SAT, and by the end of the process it will be clear to you which test is best for you. 

Timing and Structure

The ACT’s Timing and Structure

The ACT contains 4 sections: English, Math, Reading, Science (and an optional Essay section).
The test is 2 hours, 55 minutes long.

The SAT’s Timing and Structure

The SAT contains 4 sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math Without Calculator, Math With Calculator (and an optional Essay section).
The test is 3 hours long.

Time Per Section: ACT vs SAT

ACT SectionTime (minutes)SAT SectionTime (minutes)
English45/175 (26%)Writing and Language35/180 (19%)
Reading35/175 (20%)Reading65/180 (36%)
Math60/175 (34%)Math Total Time 80/180 (44%)
Science 35/175 (20%)

TOTAL175 min
180 mins

The Structure of the ACT vs The Structure of the SAT

ACT English and SAT Writing and Language are almost identically structured: both have passages with similarly structured questions and answers and cover similar content.

The SAT Math is split into two parts: with and without a calculator. These sections are back to back during the test. Alternatively, the ACT has one Math section and allows you to use your calculator for the entire section. On both tests, the questions mostly go from easier at the beginning to more difficult at the end of the section.

The Reading section on the ACT and the SAT are nearly identical: both have passages with similarly structured questions and answers and have similar content covered. One major difference is the SAT has charts/graphs in the reading section. The ACT tests your understanding of charts and graphs in the Science section (which the SAT does not have).

ACT vs SAT: Content

Math 

The SAT Math sections contain more 

  • Data analysis 
  • Statistics
  • Central tendencies questions
  • Unit conversion
  • Equation form and manipulation 

questions than the ACT.

The ACT Math section contains more 

  • Trigonometry (graphs/equations/identities/radians)
  • Logs
  • Matrices
  • Quadratic inequalities
  • Scientific notation
  • Conics 

questions than the SAT. 

This is the takeaway: the SAT uses more data in its questions and has a greater amount of long word problems. The ACT is more “mathy,” requiring formulas and specific processes, but has less wordy questions and answers.

Math Formulas to Know for the ACT

English and Writing and Language

The ACT English section and the SAT Writing and Language section cover nearly identical content. You’ll need a strong grasp of key English language rules (like commas and punctuation) as well as a sense of proper sentence structure for either the ACT or the SAT. Neither test has a strong emphasis on vocabulary other than being able to determine a word’s meaning in context. 

A Guide to Sentence Structure

Reading

The ACT and SAT Reading sections are very similar. However, the SAT Reading section contains charts, graphs, and questions in which you must analyze or understand the data presented. These are more straightforward than the data representation questions you’d see in the ACT Science section. 

The ACT Reading section does not contain charts or graphs. You will find charts and graphs in the ACT Science section. The SAT does not have a Science section.

How to Ace the ACT Reading Section
How to Ace the SAT Reading Section

Here’s a breakdown on the number of questions per section for the ACT and the SAT:

Questions Per Section: ACT vs SAT

ACT SectionNumber of
Questions
SAT SectionNumber of
Questions
English75/215 (35%)Writing and
Language
44/154 (27%)
Reading40/215 (19%)Reading52/154 (34%)
Math60/215 (28%)Math58/154 (38%)
Science40/215 (19%)Without Calculator
With Calculator
20/58 (34%)
38/58 (66%)

How Your Score Breaks Down By Content Section

The interesting thing about all these charts and tables is that you can get the impression that each section is equally weighted for both tests. This is actually untrue.

On the SAT your Reading and Writing and Language scores are lumped together – meaning the Math section makes up ½ of your SAT score, not ⅓. The Math section is 50% of your SAT score. 

And on the ACT, while each section is ¼ of your score, ¾ sections are reading based – meaning your ACT score is 75% reading-based

This is something to consider if you find yourself a stronger reader or a stronger mathematician.

Score Percentage Per Content Section

ACT Percent of
Composite Score
SATPercent of
Composite Score
Reading25%Reading25%
English25%Writing and
Language
25%
Math25%Math50%
Science25% 

How the ACT is Scored vs. How the SAT is Scored 

There are no deductions for errors on either test.

Each ACT section is scored on a simple raw points to #/36 scale, but the scores on each test vary with +/- 2. The individual scores for the 4 sections (English, Math, Reading, Science) are averaged to create a composite score, which is also out of 36. (Learn more about how the ACT is scored in this post)

The SAT’s scoring system is a bit more complicated. The Math section is scored out of 800. The scores of the Reading and Writing and Language are combined for one score out of 800. The scores on each test vary with +/- 30 points. 

Example of how scores work out if you miss the same number of questions on the ACT and SAT:


Percent
Correct*
ACT**SAT***ACT to SAT
scores
Math67% correct40/60=2639/58=62026 = 610/620
Reading
PLUS
English/
Writing
Language
67% correctR 27/40 = 23W 51/75 = 22
22 + 23 =
45
R 35/52 = 30W 29/44 = 2910(30+29) = 59045 = 570
Science67% correct27/40 = 23N/A
Composite/
Sum Score 

(26+22+23+23)/4 = 24620+590 =
1210
24 = 1180
(1160-1190)
1210 = 25

*Questions missed as EQUAL percent of total questions per section
**Scores are approximate based on previous tests, error +/- 1
***Scores are approximate based on previous tests, error +/- 20
Source: 2018 ACT to SAT concordance 

Example SAT to ACT Scores:

SAT ScoreACT Score
97018
111022
118024
124026
134029
140031
150034
159036

Source: 2018 ACT to SAT concordance 
Dig deeper: Additional ACT to SAT concordance

Key Scoring and Content Takeaways

Here are a few takeaways:

The majority of your time in the ACT is spent reading some kind of passage (Reading, English, or Science) – 66%. Whereas on the SAT, you are doing math for 44% of the time. 

Only 25% of your score on the ACT is math, whereas it is 50% of your score on the SAT.  This is simply because of how the score is calculated – ACT is a composite score of 4 sections (English, Math, Reading, Science) and the SAT is a sum score of your Math (calculator and non-calculator sections) and the Reading/Writing Language (the Reading section and the Writing and Language section).

The Easiest Way to Choose Between the ACT and SAT

Are you really busy? Maybe you just need to pick a test based on when you can take it! If you think about your schedule and when you have time to prepare and are available to take the test, the dates for either the ACT or the SAT could be more convenient to you.

Months the ACT or SAT is Offered

MonthACT OfferedSAT Offered
January
FebruaryACT
March
SAT
AprilACT
May
SAT
JuneACTSAT
JulyACT
*Not in NY

August
SAT
SeptemberACT
OctoberACTSAT
November
SAT
DecemberACTSAT

Once you’ve decided, head on over to The Olive Book website for access to dozens of free study resources for the ACT and SAT. You can also enroll in our online ACT course or the SAT course and start studying right away. 

Quiz: Is the ACT or SAT Better for You?

Love quizzes? Take this quiz for a quick assessment of which test may be best for you!

Get a better score. Get into a better school.

Olive Book’s online ACT and SAT courses are all you need to boost your score. Check them out:

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