SAT vs ACT — That is the Question 

This question is so often asked and there are varied opinions.  Let’s break down the major differences and then discuss how to make this decision.

The SAT was redesigned in 2016 and no one knew what to expect.  Many students switched to the ACT in 2016 and 2017 because the New SAT was an unknown and there just was not any way to prepare until it was released.

Once the new SAT was released many students still continued with the ACT because there was simply more practice material on the market.

This has now changed and the SAT seems to be making a come back and students are re-engaging with this test.

However, the ACT, once only accepted by a limited number of colleges and universities, has emerged as a powerhouse in the testing industry.  The ACT is accepted at all higher institutions and it has a distinct advantage as many schools do not require any or as may SAT subject tests to be submitted with the college application if you take the ACT.

On the surface, they look quite similar, especially after the 2016 redesign. In fact both exams:

  • Contain similar sections (Reading, Math, etc.) each section appearing just once in the test
  • Use rights-only scoring meaning that you will not be penalized for incorrect answers
  • Contain entirely passage-based Reading and English/Writing questions.  These are called “English” on the ACT and “Writing and Language,” on the SAT.
  • Offer an optional essay section whose score does not count toward your total score  (please take the essay!)

However, there are still many ways in which the ACT and SAT differ from one another.

Many of these differences deal with the number of questions and the time that is given to answer the questions.

Here are the factual details but look below for the interpretation of key differences.

Total Time2 hrs 55 mins without Writing

3 hrs 35 mins with Writing
3 hrs without Essay

3 hrs 50 mins with Essay
Order of Sections1. English
2. Math

3. Reading

4. Science

5. Writing (optional)
1. Reading

2. Writing and Language

3. Math No Calculator

4. Math Calculator
5. Essay (optional)
Time Per SectionEnglish: 45 mins

Math: 60 mins

Reading: 35 mins

Science: 35 mins

Writing (optional): 40 mins
Reading: 65 mins

Writing and Language: 35 mins

Math No Calculator: 25 mins

Math Calculator: 55 mins

Essay (optional): 50 mins
# of QuestionsEnglish: 75 questions

Math: 60 questions

Reading: 40 questions

Science: 40 questions

Writing (optional): 1 essay
Reading: 52 questions

Writing and Language: 44 questions

Math No Calculator: 20 questions

Math Calculator: 38 questions

Essay (optional): 1 essay

Total score range: 1-36

Each section uses a scale of 1-36. Your total score is the average of your four section scores.

The optional Writing section uses a scale of 2-12 and does not count toward your final score.

Total score range: 400-1600

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math sections each use a scale of 200-800 and are combined for a total score.

The optional Essay uses three separate scales of 1-8 and does not count toward your final score.

Cost$46.00 without Writing

$62.50 with Writing
$47.50 without Essay

$64.50 with Essay

Now let’s look at the key differences so you can make an informed decision.

Interpretation of Key Differences:

Difference #1:  Time

The SAT gives you more time to answer the questions so, in essence, it is a slower test.  This is across the board for all sections so if time is an issue then this is one point in the favorability column for the SAT.

Difference #2: Science

The ACT has a section entirely devoted to science and the SAT does not. The ACT science section is more an interpretation of scientific data, graphs, and hypothesis.  The SAT does test some scientific knowledge but it is through the other sections like a science passage or word problems in the math section.

If you love science and interpreting data then that is a favorability point for the ACT.

Difference #3:  Math

The SAT has a no-calculator math section and the ACT does not.  With the overuse of calculators, many students do struggle with this section.

However, the use of a calculator on both tests can be inhibiting and it is best to get really good at practicing without a calculator for both tests.

Difference #4: Math

The ACT tests some concepts that you will not see on the SAT.  These are matrices, graphs of trig functions, and logarithms.  If you are taking honors- level courses at your high school then these topics should not scare you off. However, if you take regular math classes in high school these topics might be a bit challenging or just realize that you have to learn for the test.

If you feel that you are stronger in algebra and analyzing data then the SAT is more in your favor.  If you like straightforward math questions and you have exposure to trig functions and geometry and like that type of math then the ACT is probably more to your liking.

Difference #5: Math Formulas

The SAT provides a diagram of math formulas at the start of each math section whereas the ACT does not.  Some students just feel more comfortable with these formulas even though these concepts don’t make up a large part of the test.

Difference #6: Math as a percentage of the overall score

The SAT Math counts for 50% of your overall score whereas in the ACT it only counts for 25% but the science section makes up the other 25% of the score.

Difference #7: Number of Multiple Choice Answers

The SAT and ACT Math are both multiple choices but the SAT gives 4 possible answers and the ACT gives 5 possible answers.  You have a 5% higher probability of getting a question correct on the SAT Math.

Difference #8: Open-ended math questions

The SAT has 22 % open-ended math questions where you have to grid in your answers.

Difference #9: Evidence-based reading

Evidence-support questions are only tested on the SAT Reading but do not exist on the ACT Reading. These are questions that build off of the questions that come before them and ask you to cite specific lines or paragraphs as evidence for your answer to a previous question. If you like these or are good at them then the SAT may be a good test for you.

Difference #10: Chronological Reading Questions

Questions on the SAT Reading are in chronological order based upon the passage whereas on the ACT Reading the questions do not follow the order of the content in the passages.

Difference #11: Essay

The essay is optional on both tests but how you write and what you write about is different.

SAT Essay — section you read and then analyze (for understanding, style, use of techniques). You use evidence and reasoning to support the point the author is trying to convey.  You DO NOT give your opinion.

ACT Essay — section you read a short passage about an issue and then analyze the different perspectives on this issue and you DO give your opinion.

Difference #12: SAT Subject Tests

If you take the SAT, many competitive college and universities (especially if you are entering engineering, pre-med, or STEM courses) will require one, two or three additional tests called SAT Subject Tests.

It is important that you look at the colleges where you plan to apply and see what is required by way of additional subject tests.

If you take the ACT, most colleges and universities do not require additional subject tests (however there are a few highly competitive schools that do – for example Carnegie Mellon).  While this is not a hard and fast rule it is more the norm that you do not need additional subject tests if you take the ACT.

How To Decide Between ACT & SAT

Analyze the information provided and be honest with who you are as a student.


If you are still unsure, take our SAT vs. ACT comparison test and receive a custom report with a detailed analysis of each test.


Contact us for a private consultation or email directly at or call 973-917-9821  — we are here to help!


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