SAT vs ACT: 13 Key Differences to Consider

SAT vs ACT: 13 Key Differences to Consider

Written by Chris Hernandez

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Initially, the ACT and SAT exams appear quite similar. But these two tests have 13 key differences you should consider before deciding which one to take.

If you're a high school student preparing for college, you know that the SAT and ACT are two of the most important tests you'll take. Both tests are widely accepted by colleges and universities, and they are used to determine a student's academic readiness. 

Initially, the ACT and SAT exams appear quite similar. Both require a comparable amount of time to finish, with the ACT taking roughly 3 hours and 35 minutes and the SAT taking around 3 hours and 50 minutes.

Additionally, they cover the same fundamental topics, including reading, writing, comprehension, problem-solving, and math. Historically, the two assessments were more dissimilar, but since the SAT underwent a significant overhaul and restructuring in 2016, it now closely resembles the ACT's layout.

While the SAT and ACT have many similarities, there are also some key differences that should be understood.

In this article, we'll discuss the 13 key differences between the SAT and ACT and help students decide which test is best for them.

#1. Test Format – Subjects Covered and Time Allocation

This table shows how the two tests are structured.

SAT Subjects and time allocated

ACT Subjects and time allocated


65 minutes


35 minutes

Writing and Language 

35 minutes


Writing Essay Optional

45 minutes

40 minutes

Math with Calculator

Math without Calculator

55 minutes

25 minutes

Math with Calculator

60 minutes




35 minutes

#2. Time Per Question

The SAT allows more time per question than the ACT does.

If you were to spend the same amount of time on each question in a given section, this will be the time allowed per question:


SAT Questions and

 time per question

ACT Questions and

 time per question


52 questions – 75 seconds ea

40 questions – 53 seconds ea

SAT Writing

ACT English

44 questions – 48 seconds ea

Optional Essay 40 minutes

75 questions – 36 seconds ea


No Calc: 20 questions – 75 seconds ea

Calc: 38 questions – 87 seconds ea


60 questions – 60 seconds ea



40 questions – 53 seconds ea

#3. Scoring

The SAT and ACT scoring systems are different. The table below shows the scoring scope and breakdown of each.

SAT Scoring

ACT Scoring

SAT Score Range: 400 – 1600

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 200-800 (Combination of reading, writing and language scores)
  • Math: 200-800 (Combination of calculator and no calculator Scores)

ACT Score Range: 1 – 36

English: 1-36

Math: 1-36

Reading: 1-36

Science: 1-36

Writing -Essay (Optional): 2-12

Differences per Section

We will now look at each section individually to highlight the difference between the SAT and ACT.

English Reading and Writing Section

#4. Evidence-Based Questions

The reading and writing sections of the SAT include evidence-based question types, while the ACT does not.

What are evidence-based questions?

Every evidence-based question requires an answer that refers directly to the previous answer, which will provide evidence obtained from the passage that led to your previous answer. Typically, you'll have to identify a particular line in the reading passage from  which you drew your conclusion.

#5. Random vs. Chronological Reading Questions

The order in which the reading questions appear on the SAT and ACT differs quite significantly.

While reading questions on the SAT typically appear chronologically, which means they appear in the order they are in the passage you had to read.

By contrast, the ACT reading questions are mostly in random order, from any part of the passage. Although some questions may follow chronologically, more often they are in no clear order, which could slow down your rate of answers in the allocated time.

Related article: How to Boost Your SAT Reading Score (10 Tips).

#6. Historical vs. Contemporary Reading Passages

The reading passages you will find on your ACT are mostly contemporary and written within recent decades. However, that is not the case for those taking the SAT

When taking the SAT, you’re sure to come across passages dating back to the early 20th century, or even older. At least one historical document will be included, and the literary passage may also be an excerpt of an older fictional work. The old-fashioned language used can be tricky to read and understand. 

#7. Optional Essay

Although both the SAT and ACT used to provide students with the option to show their skills in composing essays, the SAT removed that option in the summer of 2021. However, some schools might require a submission of SAT scores to be accompanied by an essay.

If essay writing is your strong suit, and you want to display your reading comprehension and rhetorical skills, your only option would be to take the ACT. 

If you go that route, you will receive one essay prompt that describes an issue, and three perspectives of the issue. It will be your task to compare and contrast different perspectives on an issue as well as give ample evidence to support your opinion, and you’ll have 40 minutes to do that.

ACT Writing (Essay) uses a scoring scale of 2-12 and does not factor into your composite ACT score out of 36.

Math Section

Similar math topics are tested on both exams, with a heavy emphasis on algebra. Nonetheless, the ACT focuses more on upper-level math concepts, like trigonometry, logarithms, and matrices.

#8. The Role of Math in the SAT and ACT Results

If you wonder how big a role your math score plays in the overall test results, here’s how it works.

On the SAT, your total score is the sum of both math sections and all three of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores, out of 1600 is simply the sum of your Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores. This means that math will make up half of your total score.

In contrast, on the ACT, your composite score is not the sum of the four different sections, but the average instead. If you choose to write the optional essay, it will be scored separately.

As for the other ACT sections, with the total score being the average, means that Math, English, Reading and Science each make up one quarter of your composite score. Therefore, if math is not your strong point, you may find the ACT to be the better option.

#9. No-Calculator vs. With Calculator Math

The math section of the SAT is split into two subsections, one on which you may not use a calculator, and a second section that allows the use of a calculator. The 20 Math (No Calculator) questions come before the Math (Calculator) test. You’ll have 25 minutes to solve the 20 math problems, using nothing but scratch paper. 

By contrast, if you take the ACT, you’ll be allowed to use your calculator throughout the entire test. (If you want to).

#10. Math Reference Guide vs. Memorized Formulas

Although the ACT allows the use of a calculator for the entire math section, you will have to memorize all the formulas you might need to solve the problems.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT is a bit more forthcoming in this regard. If you take the SAT, you’ll be given a reference guide containing various math formulas to help with solving geometry problems. You’ll get such a reference guide for both with and without calculator sections, lessening the pressure of having to recall memorized math formulas while taking the test.

#11. SAT vs. ACT Answer Choices

SAT Math questions have four choices, while the ACT Math questions have five answer choices each. While this might seem like an insignificant difference, it does give you a 25% chance of guessing the right answer on the SAT Math test compared to a 20% chance on the ACT Math.

#12. Multiple Choice vs. Grid-In Math Question

Unlike ACT Math that comprises only multiple choice questions, 22% of the SAT Math are Grid-Ins. These are questions that require student-produced responses. In contrast to multiple choice questions, Grid-Ins offer no choices, and require the student to respond by filling in their own answers.

SAT No Calculator Math includes 5 Grid-In questions and there are 8 Grid-Ins in a subsection of the Calculator section, making up 13 questions in total on the SAT Math. Students who are not strong in math might do better choosing the ACT.

Science Section

Unlike the ACT, the SAT does not include a section dedicated to science.

#13. ACT Science vs. SAT Science

Based on the scoring system of the ACT, this makes up 25% of the composite ACT score. It requires the student to be able to interpret experimental data and hypotheses, and how to evaluate scientific models.

Although there is no dedicated Science section on the SAT, many of the questions in the other SAT sections require a thorough understanding of the interpretation of scientific data because they reference scientific experiments. These are questions that comprise the Analysis in Science cross-test score, a subscore that may be included in any or all SAT sections.

However, while schools will consider the ACT Science score as an important part of the composite score, most schools pay little attention to SAT subscores.

Overall SAT vs. ACT

With this comparison, we hope to help you make an informed choice about taking the SAT or ACT. As an overall summary, here’s a bit more to help you decide.

Reasons to take the SAT:

  • If you have faith in your math skills and can solve problems without relying on a calculator or writing down the answers, then you may excel on the SAT. It's worth noting that the Math section carries significant weight in determining your overall score, so performing well on this part could greatly improve your total score.
  • If you prefer having additional time to consider the questions and want to avoid getting stuck during the test, it may be advantageous for you to choose the SAT over the ACT. This is because each section of the SAT provides more time per question compared to the ACT.
  • If you're not interested in science. You don't have to worry about a separate science score affecting your overall performance on the SAT since there is no science section included.

Reasons to take the ACT:

  • If you excel in science, the ACT offers an opportunity to showcase your analytical skills. Scoring well in the Science section can significantly improve your overall ACT score. Therefore, it is crucial for science enthusiasts to make the most of this section.
  • You aren't as confident in your math skills. The ACT Math section contributes only 25% to your overall score and permits the use of a calculator for all problems. Even if your performance on the Math section is not satisfactory, it will not affect your final ACT score as significantly as it would on the SAT.
  • If you are confident in your writing abilities and believe that an essay would enhance your college application, it is recommended that you take the ACT with Writing to demonstrate your skills. It is important not to overlook this aspect of the test.

Final Thoughts

If you are still unsure about choosing the SAT or ACT, you might consider taking both tests. However, this is generally not recommended. You'll have to study for two separate exams, each with its own content, questions, and structure, potentially causing unnecessary confusion about what to study and the different time limits.

You'll also have to dedicate more time to studying, take more practice tests, and drill more content areas than you would if you were only preparing for the SAT or ACT.

Ultimately, it's best to stick with one exam and retake it if necessary.

You might want to consider reaching out to Amikka Learning for guidance with studying and taking practice tests to see which one would be the better choice for you. Amikka also offers 1-on-1 tutoring and online test prep courses to help you get admitted into your dream school. Contact us for a free consultation!

Written by Founder
Chris Hernandez

Christopher Hernandez, the founder of Amikka Learning, couldn’t afford expensive SAT tutoring so he spent hundreds of hours studying on his own.

After improving over 400 points and attending an Ivy League school he realized how unfair the playing field was with tutoring: no matter how smart you were, if you couldn’t afford tutoring you were stuck.
His dream was to change this.

He began tutoring for the SAT and quickly realized that he was a gifted tutor. His students were loving his program and improving very fast.

Fast forward 8 years, Amikka is a leader in the education industry and has helped thousands of students get into their dream schools.

If you’d like a free consultation for 1-on-1 tutoring schedule a call with our team here.

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