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One of the first of many college admissions decisions that students must make is whether to take the ACT, the SAT, or both. Keep reading to see some of the differences between the tests!

Test Timing

One of the biggest differences between the two tests involves timing:

ACT 2 hours, 55 minutes (without optional essay) 215 multiple choice questions

Approximately 50 seconds per question

SAT 3 hours 154 multiple choice and grid-in questions

Approximately 70 seconds per question


As you can see, the ACT requires a bit more speed than the SAT does – but it’s worth noting that the questions on the SAT are often less straightforward than those on the ACT, so that extra time is often very necessary.

Writing Section

The SAT Evidence-Based Writing test and the ACT English test are very similar: Both include a series of passages accompanied by questions asking you to edit, revise, and interpret the passage. Some notable differences include:

  • ACT passages are generally of a somewhat lower text complexity than SAT passages are.
  • The SAT includes questions that require you to interpret graphics/tables.

Reading Section

The SAT Evidence-Based Reading test and the ACT Reading test are also very similar: Both include a series of passages accompanied by questions asking you to interpret and analyze the passage. Some notable differences include:

  • Although the total word count of the passages on each test is comparable, the ACT features four longer passages (approx. 700-900 words each) compared to 5 shorter passages (approx. 500-750 words each) on the SAT.
  • The passages on the SAT feature a broader range of text complexity with some passages considered to be college reading level.
  • The SAT includes questions requiring analysis of graphics/tables.

Math Section

Both the SAT and the ACT math sections feature questions that require knowledge of higher-level concepts such as trigonometry, though there is generally a slightly greater emphasis on Algebra II/trigonometry on the ACT than on the SAT. Other notable differences include:

  • The ACT allows a calculator for all math questions. The SAT includes a 25 minute, 20 question no calculator section.
  • All questions on the ACT are multiple choice. About 20% of the questions on the SAT are grid-ins that require you to generate your own answer.

Science Section

Only the ACT has a science section – there is no science section on the SAT. That said, it’s worth noting that the ACT Science test doesn’t really require a lot of science knowledge. It focuses more strongly on data interpretation and analysis than on true scientific information. This is somewhat comparable to the inclusion of tables/graphics throughout the SAT in that both tests require the ability to interpret and analyze data.

Essay Section

As of June 2021, only the ACT includes an optional essay section. The SAT essay has been discontinued.

The ACT essay task is both analytical and persuasive, requiring students to read a brief overview of a topic, analyze the perspectives given, and then argue in favor of their own perspective.

Test Scores

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36 while the SAT is scored on a scale from 400 to 1600. Although the College Board and others have published concordance tables to help students and schools compare scores across tests, it’s important to take any such comparisons with a grain of salt; as new data continues to become available, concordance tables are likely to shift.

Neither test features a guessing penalty, so students should always try to answer as many questions as possible even if they have to blindly guess.

So Which Test Is Better for You?

Check out our webinar to learn more about how to use information about each test to make an informed decision. Students often find that they naturally perform somewhat better on one test than the other, so you might consider taking practice tests for both exams to compare your performance.