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 Section||Time (minutes)||SAT Section||Time (minutes)|
|English||45/175 (26%)||Writing and Language||35/180 (19%)|
|Reading||35/175 (20%)||Reading||65/180 (36%)|
|Math||60/175 (34%)||Math Total Time||80/180 (44%)|
|TOTAL||175 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
The SAT Math sections contain more
- Data analysis
- Central tendencies questions
- Unit conversion
- Equation form and manipulation
questions than the ACT.
The ACT Math section contains more
- Trigonometry (graphs/equations/identities/radians)
- Quadratic inequalities
- Scientific notation
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a breakdown on the number of questions per section for the ACT and the SAT:
Questions Per Section: ACT vs SAT
|ACT Section||Number of |
|SAT Section||Number of |
|English||75/215 (35%)||Writing and |
|Reading||40/215 (19%)||Reading||52/154 (34%)|
|Math||60/215 (28%)||Math||58/154 (38%)|
|Science||40/215 (19%)||Without Calculator|
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 |
|SAT||Percent of |
|English||25%||Writing and |
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:
|ACT**||SAT***||ACT to SAT |
|Math||67% correct||40/60=26||39/58=620||26 = 610/620|
|67% correct||R 27/40 = 23W 51/75 = 22|
22 + 23 =
|R 35/52 = 30W 29/44 = 2910(30+29) = 590||45 = 570|
|Science||67% correct||27/40 = 23||N/A|
|(26+22+23+23)/4 = 24||620+590 =|
|24 = 1180 |
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 Score||ACT Score|
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
|Month||ACT Offered||SAT Offered|
*Not in NY
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?
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