The ACT vs. the SAT

The ACT and the SAT are the two most prominent standardized tests used for college admissions. At one point in time, the ACT was popular in the Midwest and the SAT was prevalent in the remainder of the country,  but this is no longer the case. Most students take both tests and most colleges will accept either test score with your application.

The tests are quite similar. The ACT has four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT also has four sections: Reading, Writing & Language, Math (No Calculator), and Math (Calculator). The ACT English and SAT Writing & Language sections are nearly indistinguishable at first glance, and the ACT Reading and SAT Reading sections also resemble each other. Although the SAT does not have a Science section, science questions are spread throughout all sections of the test. Both tests offer an optional essay, required by some colleges.

The following chart shows the most important similarities and differences between the two tests:

 

SAT

ACT

Scoring scale

400-1600

1-36

Guessing strategy

No penalty for wrong answers

No penalty for wrong answers

Length

3 hours

2 hours, 55 minutes

Length with optional essay

3 hours, 50 minutes

3 hours, 25 minutes

Sections

Reading, Writing & Language, Math (no calculator), and Math (calculator)

English, Math, Reading, and Science

Scored sections

1. Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (200-800)
2. Math (200-800)

1. English (1-36)
2. Math (1-36)
3. Reading (1-36)
4. Science (1-36)

Question format

Multiple choice and "grid-in" math questions

All multiple choice questions

Math

Two sections; one allows calculator

One section; calculator allowed

58 questions (45 multiple choice, 13-grid-in)

60 questions

80 minutes

60 minutes

One question worth 4 points; all others worth one point

All questions worth one point

Assesses pre-Algebra, Algebra I & II, geometry, coordinate geometry, statistics, trigonometry, and data analysis

Assesses pre-Algebra, Algebra I & II, geometry, coordinate geometry, statistics, trigonometry, and data analysis

Emphasis on Algebra and Algebra II

Emphasis on pre-Algebra and geometry

Has more word problems than the ACT

Has fewer word problems than the ACT

Reading

Five long passages

Five long passages

1 literature passage, 2 history or social studies passages, and 2 science passages

1 literature passage, 1 humanities passage, 1 social studies passage, 1 natural science passage (and 1 additional passage from these subject areas)

52 multiple choice questions

40 multiple choice questions

65 minutes

35 minutes

Some science-based questions

Science questions in science section only

Higher text complexity than the ACT

Lower text complexity than the SAT

8-10 vocabulary questions

2-4 vocabulary questions

English/Writing & Language

Four passages

Five passages

44 multiple choice questions

75 multiple choice questions

35 minutes

45 minutes

Assesses usage, grammar, sentence structure, rhetorical skills, and punctuation

Assesses usage, grammar, sentence structure, rhetorical skills, and punctuation

Some science-based questions

Science questions in science section only

Higher text complexity than the ACT

Lower text complexity than the SAT

Science section

Science questions in all sections

Dedicated Science section

Essay

Optional essay section

Optional essay section

Most students today are taking both tests multiple times. If you plan to only take one test, we recommend that you do a bit of research to determine whether that test should be the ACT or the SAT. First, check with the colleges and universities to which you plan to apply. The admissions department may require one or the other, and may also offer scholarships based on scores from a specific test. Then, if the college accepts both tests, take an ACT and an SAT practice test to see which one plays to your strengths. You can download a free ACT test from the ACT website and a free SAT test from the College Board website.

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