ACT vs SAT: Major Differences

Both the ACT and SAT are standardized exams, and their results are accepted in all colleges and universities. If you are thinking, “which is harder: SAT or ACT”, it all depends on which one you choose and where there is a better chance to get a higher score. Of course, the difference between the SAT and the ACT does exist: the test structure, length and many other features may vary. Remember: you can begin with a free practice test and see which exam suits you more. Read our guide to find out about both tests and determine which one is suitable for you.  

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ACT and SAT similarities

When it comes to the structure, both tests contain Reading, Writing and Math sections.

Moreover, you are free to choose an additional essay writing, which is optional. A good thing to know is that you won’t be penalized for wrong answers. Nowadays the rules are much more softened, so you don’t have to worry about getting any fines.

What is the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

ACT vs SAT: timing

The  ACT lasts 3 hours, but with a 50-minute essay, it will take 3 hours and 50 minutes in total.

The SAT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes, however an optional essay extends it to 3 hours and 40 minutes. What is more, when taking the SAT, a student will get more time to answer each question, compared to ACT.

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ACT vs SAT: sections

The ACT consists of the following sections:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science Reasoning
  • Essay (Optional)

The SAT test has the following components:

  • Reading
  • Writing & Language
  • Math
  • Essay (Optional)

Unlike the SAT, the ACT has an additional Science section that consists of 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes. Science Reasoning is aimed at testing your critical thinking rather than actual scientific knowledge. Though the SAT does not include the science test, scientific questions are included into the exam as well.

ACT vs SAT Writing

Although both tests may look pretty much the same, there are crucial differences between the two.

  • Reading: The texts on the ACT English section are at a relatively easy reading level, whereas the reading level of paragraphs in the SAT Writing section varies, ranging from high school to early college.
  • Informational Graphic: The ACT English section is all about the textual part. The SAT Writing section has some questions with tables and graphs included.

ACT vs SAT Math

  • Calculator: You are free to use a calculator during each question of the ACT math section. The SAT, on the other hand, includes a 25 minute block of 20 questions, where you’ll have to calculate in your head.
  • Multiple Choice: The ACT math questions are all multiple-choice, which means you will always have a minor chance to get the answer right, even if you don’t know it at all. The SAT math test has 20% grid-ins, where you will need to fill in the blanks with your own answers.

When it comes to the math section, both exams cover the following disciplines:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra I & II
  • Geometry, Trigonometry

However, the SAT math section has additional Data Analysis, while the ACT one includes Probability & Statistics. Here is another difference between the math sections of the two exams: The SAT offers a diagram of math formulas, whereas the ACT does not.

ACT vs SAT reading

When you glance at the Reading section of the ACT and SAT, you will see that they look quite similar; still, there are couple differences to observe:  

  • Number of passages: There are four long passages (700-900 words) to read on the ACT and five longish passages (500 to 750 words) to read on the SAT. You’ll come across 4 reading sections on the ACT and 5 on the SAT. Besides, both tests include a set of paired passages, which should be taken as a single passage though.
  • Passage complexity: The ACT reading level is standardized and corresponds to the 10th and 11th grade of high school. The SAT reading range is wider, as it extends from 9th grade to early college.

SAT essay versus ACT essay

Although the ACT and the SAT have many things in common, there is one thing that makes them different – an optional essay. The idea behind the ACT essay is to provide you with three perspectives on a debatable topic, which you will have to analyze and suggest your personal opinion on the matter. If you are good at debating and logical reasoning, the ACT essay may be the perfect option for you. For the SAT essay, you will have a 650-700 word passage to read and analyze how the author develops his argument in a separate essay. Here, you won’t need to give your own opinion or your arguments but simply evaluate the reading. SAT essay is the best option for those with good analytical skills, students who like analyzing readings during their English class will definitely enjoy it.

ACT vs SAT: Dates

Both the ACT and the SAT exams are held seven times per year. Specifically, the SAT is not taken in the following months: January, February, July, and September, while the ACT is not available in January, March, May, August, and November. Keep in mind that in some states the ACT and the SAT exams are a part of the state testing requirements, so the tests are not held on the national test days.

ACT vs SAT:  Which is easier or harder? Final review

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? The answer to that question lies in understanding what you find easy and what you consider difficult.

Choose an exam and take the time to prepare. Focus on the most important things.

The ACT exam is better for you if:

  • You are a fast thinker. You can complete tests just on time and read fast.
  • You are a fan of science. You can analyze data and trends easily. Even if you are not so good in science but still have no difficulty reading graphs and tables, you have a chance to succeed in the ACT as well.
  • Your best friend is your calculator. If you get used to finding the math answers using it, then the idea of grid-ins and no-calculator section in the SAT might scare you a bit.

The SAT exam is better for you if:

  • You are not a fast thinker, but a good and thoughtful reader. You know you can encounter a bit more difficult passages on the SAT exam, but it doesn’t scare you, as long as you know that you have a little bit more time to think everything over.
  • You’re good at math. You can solve mathematical equations mentally, and you don’t need to use a calculator for that.
  • You are good at finding tricky parts and reading between the lines. Remember: the better you are at standard test games, the more successful you’ll be at the SAT exam.

Explore SAT vs ACT comparison chart for more info

Test Length 2 h 55 min
+ 40-min essay (optional)
3 h
+ 50-min essay (optional)
Test Sections Reading Test
35 min – 40 questions
English Test
45 min – 75 questions
Math Test
60 min – 60 questions
Science Test
35 min – 40 questions
Reading Test
65 min – 52 questions
Writing and Language Test
35 min – 44 questions
Math Test
80 min – 58 questions
Total Number of questions 215 154
Composite Score Range 1–36 400–1600
Penalty for Wrong Answers NO NO
Math formulas provided NO YES
Test frequency 7 times/year 7 times/year
Registration deadlines 5 weeks before test day 4 weeks before test day
Late registration deadlines 20+ days before test day 11 days before test day
Score reports 20 Unlimited