SAT vs ACT: Major Differences To Help You Select the Right Test

Any people must have heard about SAT and ACT, but very few people know the actual difference between SAT and ACT.

When you look at it, the two tests aren't that different. Both the ACT and SAT are nationally recognized standardized tests, and both tests are also standard admission requirements for US schools. 

Serving primarily to high school juniors and seniors, SAT and ACT measures students’ proficiency in various critical skill areas—such as problem-solving, science,  and reading comprehension—necessary for future success.

All US colleges and universities accept SAT and ACT scores, and there is no particular advantage in taking one test. This means you can apply to the same schools, no matter which test you take.

But what about the actual content of the two tests? Though not identical, the ACT and SAT are more closely related than ever before.

SAT vs. ACT: How they Differ from each other

Regardless of all these similarities, there are various aspects in which the ACT and SAT differ from each other. Generally, the SAT is slightly longer than the ACT. Other than that, the number of questions and time limits vary for corresponding sections. 

SAT vs ACT - The Difference
Fig 1.0

SAT vs. ACT: Major Differences 

However, both tests are somewhat similar, and they have some significant differences which you have to consider before deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT.

1. Time per Question 

If you hate time crunches, you have to go for SAT instead of ACT because the SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT.

The below-mentioned table shows the time differences between the two tests.

Time per Question for SAT & ACT

2. Different types of Science Section

ACT has a science section wholly devoted to science while SAT section differs. 

Looking at Fig: 1.0, you can see that the ACT Science section has 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes. In the ACT, Science composes one-fourth of your total ACT score. If you are an Einstein follower, you will love the idea of having an entire section focused on hypotheses, scientific data, and graphs, which you will get in the ACT.

SAT includes scientific concepts but not through a separate Science section. You might sometimes come across questions dealing with scientific passages, data, and charts on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections.

There is no Science score on the SAT like on the ACT, but there is an Analysis in Science cross-test score, one of the many subscores given on the SAT.

3. No use of Calculator in SAT

You can use a calculator in the ACT on all Math questions. However, the SAT has a Math "No Calculator" subsection for which you cannot use a calculator. 

If you find it difficult to solve math quickly without a calculator, you can do better on ACT Math than on SAT Math. On the other hand, if you are a math whiz and a genius who can work without a calculator, SAT is a reliable option. Understand that on both the ACT and SAT, you can technically solve all math questions without a calculator.

4. Different type of Math Concepts

The ACT has a larger focus on geometry, about 30-45% of ACT Math. On the contrary, geometry accounts for less than 10% of SAT Math questions. Besides that, trigonometry accounts for 7% of ACT, but less than 5% of the SAT. So there's more importance of trigonometry on the ACT than on the SAT. 

So, if you are good at algebra and data analysis, you will do well on the SAT. But if you ace trigonometry and geometry, then ACT is a better choice.

5. The emphasis of Math in the Final Score

The critical question is: How big of a role will Math play in your final score? Math is one-fourth of your total score. The Math score is averaged with your other three section scores. However, the SAT Math accounts for half of your total score, making it twice as necessary on the SAT!

So if math isn’t your niche, you can opt for the ACT. With the ACT, a lower Math score won’t negatively affect your total score as much as it will on the SAT.

6. Different number of Answer choices on Math

The two tests provide a different number of answer choices on Math. Both the SAT and ACT Math sections are multiple-choice. But while ACT Math offers you five possible answer choices (A-E or F-K), SAT Math only gives you four (A-D).

Remember, both tests use rights-only scoring, meaning you will never lose your marks for an incorrect answer. So if you play the guessing game on an SAT Math question, you have a 25% chance of getting the problem right. But if you guess on the ACT Math question, you’d have only a 20% chance of getting it right.  

7. Evidence support questions 

If you are good at finding areas in texts to support your answers to questions, you can with the SAT.

Evidence-support questions are an essential part of SAT Reading but are absent on ACT Reading. These questions are developed to see whether you understand how authors use evidence to create and support their claims and points. Sometimes, evidence questions can be tricky if you are unsure where to find your answer in the passage.

8. Chronological Reading Questions 

On SAT, in the Reading section, all questions follow a chronological order, i.e.,  in the passage they refer to. But on ACT Reading, problems can come out of anywhere and usually do not track the content’s order in the extracts.

So, SAT Reading questions are more comfortable to follow and easier to answer than ACT Reading questions.

9. Essay Content 

The one last difference between the SAT and ACTs is the difference in the essay content. On both tests, the essay part is optional; besides, what you write about varies depending on whether you are taking the SAT or ACT.

On the SAT, you have to read the passage and then analyze it.  Your essay will dissect the author's argument using evidence and reasoning. In other words, you will not be giving your own opinion.

Have a look at SAT Sample essays example  and

ACT Sample essays example

SAT vs. ACT: Still Confused About which Test is Right for You

Finally, you have to sit quietly, take your time, and you have to ask yourself: Which is the right test for you.

To help you further, I have written three methods to make your decision easier: 

Evaluate yourself by Taking a practice test

Rather than just guessing whether you will excel at the SAT or ACT, the right way to decide is to take each test and then compare your scores. To make it happen, you will need to find an official practice test for both the SAT and ACT. 

Check out: Official SAT practice test and Official ACT practice test.

After completing both practice tests, calculate your SAT and ACT scores using and then compare your scores. At last, whichever test you scored higher on is the one you should eventually prep for and use for college admissions.

Take SAT vs. ACT quiz.

Another way to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT. Many students come up with an answer after taking the SAT vs. ACT quiz. Check our free SAT Review Guides.Check your State’s requirements. 

In the end, do not forget to check out whether your state has any particular requirements for the test. In some states, all high school students need to take the ACT or SAT. In such cases, it is best to stick with whatever test is required for your state so that you do not have to waste your time on another test too.

Ten states/regions that require the SAT:

  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • West Virginia

11 states that require the ACT:

  • Alabama
  • Hawaii
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Utah
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Briefly to conclude

Have a look at AP Guru’s Guidelines for SAT Entrance Exam 

Also, Know all about the ACT test. 

Get Detailed information about SAT Subject Test.

Know the Difference between SAT and ACT scores.

Visit AP Guru’s flagship SAT prep program and ACT prep program page to get all details.