Differences Between the ACT® and SAT® Tests

By Emily Brehe-Gunter

For someone new to the college admissions process, comparing the ACT® and SAT® tests can be like comparing apples to oranges. At a glance the two seem very similar, but once you break down the tests further, you’ll notice a few important differences.

Both of these tests are widely accepted for scholarship consideration and college admissions at most colleges in the U.S. This means a college won’t give preference for one test over the other.

When preparing for upcoming tests, it’s important to know what to expect from both versions of college admissions tests, especially in terms of format, content, and timing. In this post, we’ll go over 18 key differences between the ACT and SAT tests and how to decide which one is right for you.

ACT vs. SAT Test: 18 Differences to Consider

1. The Tests Are Administered by Different Organizations

The SAT test is owned and administered by the College Board, a non-profit organization made up of elite northeastern colleges. The organization was founded in 1899, and it also owns and administers the PSAT, AP®, and CLEP® exams, among many other college admissions tools.

In contrast, the ACT test is owned by ACT, Inc., an Iowa-based organization that was founded in 1959. Like College Board, the ACT nonprofit also heads up many other projects and programs, including the PreACT, The Official ACT Prep Guide publication, and many others.

2. The SAT Test Has Been Around Longer

The SAT test was first created in 1926. At that time, many universities had their own versions of aptitude and IQ tests that were used for admission and scholarship consideration.

After World War II, the SAT test became more popular as the demand for standardized tests rapidly increased. This change in demand was a result of large numbers of veterans attending college through the G.I. Bill.

Over the years, the SAT test has undergone various revisions and major changes. Its most recent change happened earlier in 2021 when the test announced that it would discontinue the optional essay and SAT Subject Tests.

The ACT test didn’t enter the market until 1959. In the beginning, the ACT test was quite different from the SAT test, but over the past 60+ years, the tests have evolved to become very similar.

Today, colleges rely on ACT or SAT scores to help them make admissions decisions. So if you plan to apply to college in the U.S., you will likely sign up for one test or the other (or both).

3. Popularity Varies By State

Depending on where you live, your school district may put more emphasis on one test over the other. For example, the SAT test tends to be more popular in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, as well as in densely populated states like California, Texas, Illinois, and Florida. The ACT test is more popular in the MidWest and southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

In 2012, the ACT test was more popular than the SAT test among high school students for the first time in history. In 2018, the SAT test reclaimed the majority, but the ACT test remains to be almost as popular.

It’s important to note that both the ACT and SAT tests are available in all 50 states. We recommend visiting the tests’ websites to find a testing center near you.

act vs sat popularity by state

Testing Requirements for Graduation Vary by State

Did you know that some states require high school students to take the ACT or SAT test (or a similar exam) in order to qualify for graduation? In select states, the ACT or SAT tests are taken in replacement of state-wide assessments like Smarter Balanced.

States That Require the SAT Test for High School Graduation:

States That Require the ACT Test for High School Graduation:

Some states allow high school students to choose to take either the ACT or the SAT test in order to meet the graduation requirement. Those states are: New JerseyOhio, Oklahoma, and TennesseeIdaho previously had this requirement, but they’ve waived it for the 2021-2022 school year.

In some states, students can choose to take the ACT test to meet the graduation requirement in place of state exams or ACT WorkKeys®.

Even if your state doesn’t require the ACT or SAT test, your high school might. Be sure to review your high school’s graduation requirements before determining which test you’ll take.

4. Score Reporting: Different Score Ranges

Both tests follow different scoring scales. SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 points, whereas ACT composite scores range from 1 to 36 points.

SAT section scores range from 200-800 points. The test consists of two main sections, and scores from these two sections are combined to come up with the total score. Learn more about what makes a good SAT score.

ACT section scores range from 1-36. The “composite” score (or overall score) is the average of the four test section scores and is graded on the same scale of 1-36. Learn more about what makes a good ACT score.

5. Test Format: Different Sections

The ACT and SAT test sections are very similar, but there are some differences in the order of the sections and style of questions.

SAT Test Sections:

  • Evidence Based Reading
  • Writing & Language
  • Math (no calculator)
  • Math (with calculator)

ACT Test Sections:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Writing (optional essay)

No two test sections are exactly the same—even if the sections appear to cover the same core subjects or areas of expertise.

The SAT Evidence-Based Reading section is the equivalent of the ACT Reading section and tests a student’s reading comprehension skills. In this section, students pore over reading passages and find answers to questions that link back to passage content.

The SAT Writing & Language section can be closely compared to the ACT English section. These sections test a student’s knowledge of English conventions, grammar, word choice, etc.

Questions on the SAT Math section will be similar to what you see on the ACT Math section, but there are a few important differences that we describe in #8 below. It’s important to note that SAT Math accounts for 50% of the total test score while the ACT Math section only accounts for 25% of the overall test score.

One of the most noticeable differences between test sections is that the ACT test includes a science section and the SAT test does not. We describe this difference more in #10 below.

6. ACT Reading Passages Are Longer

Typically, an ACT Reading passage consists of about 750 words while reading passages on the SAT test can be anywhere from 500 to 750 words. This makes it sound like it takes more time to go through a passage and answer all the related questions on the ACT test, but that is not necessarily true.

David Dernier is the Vice President of Verbal Curriculum Development at KD College Prep. We asked him to explain the small nuances between the two sections.

“Whereas the SAT Reading section tasks students with noticing subtle differences between answer choices, the ACT is straight-forward by comparison. Reading passages on the ACT are longer, but the answer choices are more distinct, so students who can keep up with the reading pace of the ACT will find that answering the questions is not quite so tricky,” David says.

In another post, we go over tips on how to improve ACT and SAT reading section scores.

7. ACT English Puts More Emphasis on Passage Main Ideas

While working through the ACT English section, students will also be expected to think of the passage as a whole. You won’t find these broad-minded types of questions on the SAT Writing section.

“Another key difference is that the ACT English section asks questions about the passage as a whole, unlike the SAT Writing section. Instead of focusing only on bits of the passage with correlating questions, students will also need to prepare for questions that ask about the author’s purpose, requiring students to keep track of main ideas as they work through the passages,” David says.

8. Different Types of Math Questions

While both tests evaluate a student’s understanding of core math concepts, they have a few subtle but important differences.

Scott Simons is the Vice President of Math/Science Curriculum and Instruction at KD College Prep. We asked him to explain a few of the differences you’ll find between the math sections.

“The ACT Math section generally contains a larger number of geometry questions and is more calculation-based with very little data analysis. The SAT Math sections are more reasoning-based and contain fewer geometry questions but more data analysis than the ACT Math test,” Scott says.

When preparing for upcoming tests, it’s also important to know that the ACT Math section expects students to understand slightly more advanced math subjects and concepts.

“The ACT Math test also contains some higher-level algebra II and trigonometry concepts that do not appear on the SAT Math test,” Scott says.

9. SAT Test Features a No-Calculator Math Section

If you struggle with solving math problems in your head or without a calculator, then it’s helpful to know that the SAT test does include a no-calculator math section. You’ll be required to put calculators away for that segment of the test. However, the ACT test allows you to use a calculator on the entire test.

As you probably already know, both the ACT and SAT tests restrict the types of calculators that you can use on the test. A calculator can help you improve your overall timing, but math questions on both tests tend to require more thought than simply entering numbers into a calculator and letting it solve for you. Be sure to review the guidelines on the ACT and SAT websites so that you show up with the appropriate calculator on test day.

10. ACT Test Includes a Science Section

What the ACT Math section lacks in data analysis, it makes up for in the ACT Science section.

“There is very little prior science knowledge required. Scientific studies and experiments have been conducted, and you are provided with tables, figures, and graphs with the data from those studies and experiments, as well as textual information describing the topic and how the studies/experiments were done. You are then asked to interpret that data by identifying data points within the tables/figures/graphs and making conclusions about the scientific topic discussed from the given data/text,” Scott says.

But don’t let the ACT Science section scare you! You won’t be required to be a science expert. This part of the test will examine your ability to problem-solve and interpret data rather than retain extensive knowledge about a particular science subject.

“There will be one or two questions per test that do require some outside science knowledge, but typically that knowledge will be fairly basic information from the relevant topic area,” Scott says.

11. Grid-ins: An SAT Answer Format

The ACT test consists solely of multiple-choice questions, aside from the optional essay. However, on the SAT test you will find multiple-choice questions and grid-ins.

What are grid-ins? We’re glad you asked! Grid-ins are problems that require students to fill in the correct number rather than select a number from multiple choices. There will be five grid-in questions on the non-calculator math section and eight grid-in questions on the calculator math section. Grid-in questions make up a total of 22% of all of the math questions on the test.

grid in sat question type

12. The Essay: Only Offered by the ACT Test

When comparing test sections in #5, you’ll notice that the ACT test offers an optional essay section but the SAT test does not.

Until recently, the essay was included on both tests as an optional add-on. In January 2021, College Board announced that it will no longer offer the essay portion of the SAT test. This is likely due to COVID-19 restrictions and limitations, as well as a drastic decrease in colleges that require or review essay section test scores as part of the admissions process.

13. Length of Time and Number of Questions

In terms of overall testing time, the SAT test is a little longer than the ACT test. On the other hand, the ACT test includes more questions.

The SAT test is about five minutes longer than the ACT test. The ACT test consists of about 61 more questions than the SAT test.

ACT Test Section Breakdown:

  • English: 45 minutes, 75 questions – 36 seconds per question
  • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions – 60 seconds per question
  • Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions – 52.5 seconds per question
  • Science: 35 minutes, 40 questions – 52.5 seconds per question
  • Writing (optional essay): 40 minutes, 1 question
  • Total: 175 minutes, 215 questions (With Essay: 215 minutes, 216 questions)

SAT Test Section Breakdown:

  • Reading: 65 minutes, 52 questions – 75 seconds per question
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions – 47.7 seconds per question
  • Math with No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions – 75 seconds per question
  • Math with Calculator: 55 minutes, 38 questions – 86.8 seconds per question
  • Total: 180 minutes, 154 questions

The ACT test is more fast paced than the SAT Test. In every section, you’ll have less time per question.

ACT English allows for about 36 seconds per question, while the SAT Writing & Language section gives students about 47.7 seconds per question.

“Students must work about 25% more quickly to complete the ACT English section on time,” David says.

Students have about 52.5 seconds per question on the ACT Reading section and about 75 seconds per question on the SAT Reading section.

The ACT Math section is shorter overall than the SAT Math section (which is made up of two parts: calculator and no-calculator). ACT Math gives students about 60 seconds per question, and both parts of the SAT Math section give students more time to solve (75 seconds per question on Math with No Calculator and 86.8 seconds per question on Math with Calculator).

The ACT Science section is also rather quick. Here, students have about 52.5 seconds per question.

14. Level of Difficulty: Is the ACT Test Harder Than the SAT Test?

In general, the tests are too similar to determine whether one test is harder than the other. However, a student may find that one test better aligns with his or her personal strengths and level of knowledge.

Questions on the SAT test sometimes include slightly trickier language than ACT test questions. Questions on the ACT test tend to be a little more straightforward.

On the other hand, the ACT gives you less time per question on every section. Your brain will need to keep a faster pace when solving for the answers.

You can get a 35 on two of the sections on the ACT test and still get a perfect composite score because the average will round up to 36. On the SAT test, you have to get a perfect score on all sections to earn a 1600.

While perfect composite scores on the ACT test are more common, this doesn’t necessarily translate to one test being easier than the other—they just follow different scoring methods, and colleges are aware of these small discrepancies.

15. Practice Versions: PSAT vs. PreACT Test

Each test has its own practice versions. However, access to these practice versions of the tests will vary depending on your location and your school district.

There are benefits to taking the PSAT test in 11th grade, so we always encourage our students to sign up whenever possible. The National Merit® Scholarship Program uses 11th grade PSAT scores to determine scholarship eligibility and National Merit Semifinalist status. Some colleges also award special scholarships to students who earn this recognition.

In contrast, the PreACT test exists purely as a practice version of the ACT test. There are no added benefits.

We only bring this point up because it may affect a student’s decision about which test to take. If you already plan to take the PSAT test, you might as well take the SAT test also. The PSAT and SAT tests are very similar, and taking the PSAT test will help you prepare for the SAT test.

16. Test Dates: Offered During Different Times of the Year

Both the ACT and SAT tests offer seven different Saturday testing dates each year. Usually, the tests won’t be offered on the same day, with the exception of the December test date.

We know that for busy high school students time of year matters. For some students, it’s best to pick a testing date for when you’re not heavily involved in sports or extracurriculars, but this is not the only reason why a student may prefer a particular test date. At KD College Prep, we help students build a testing timeline that works best for their individual needs.

When Is the ACT or SAT Test Offered?

Below is a quick overview for which months the tests are usually offered.

act vs sat test dates

School Day Testing

Both the ACT and SAT tests offer school day testing at participating high schools. This means that the high school will offer 11th and 12th graders the chance to take one of the tests during a school day. Not all high schools offer this, so contact your school counselor to find out if your school participates.

17. Pricing: The ACT Test Is Slightly More Expensive

The ACT test without the essay is about $5 more expensive than the SAT test.

The SAT test currently costs $55. The ACT test is $60 without the essay and $85 with the essay.

School day tests may be offered at a special discounted rate. A few states offer the ACT or SAT tests to their student residents for free. Fee waivers are available for eligible students.

18. How You Sign Up

Each test involves a different process in terms of signing up and payment.

How to Sign Up for the ACT test

You can sign up for the ACT test by creating an account on the ACT test website. There, you’ll be able to enter your information, find a testing center near you, and select colleges to which you’d like to send your scores. Registration is required five to six weeks in advance.

How to Sign Up for the SAT test

Students can register for the SAT test by setting up an account on the College Board website. In some cases, students have to register by mail. Registration is required about four weeks in advance.

Don’t forget to ask if your school offers a school day test! Your high school counselor can tell you if it’s offered, when it is, and how to sign up for it.

Should I Take the ACT or the SAT Test?

Overall, the ACT and SAT tests have more similarities than differences. Both tests gauge student’s level of preparedness for college, and they both tend to cover the same general areas of knowledge: reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, math, logic, data analysis, and problem-solving.

As we’ve mentioned, colleges won’t give you brownie points for choosing one test above the other. So the choice really comes down to which test will best meet your needs and how your scores turn out.

There are many factors that will play a role in helping you decide which test is right for you (if you are unable to take both). Ask yourself:

  • Do I plan to take the PSAT test in 10th or 11th grade? Does my school offer the PreACT?
  • Does my high school require me to take one of the tests for graduation?
  • Which test dates work best for my schedule?
  • Are there testing centers near me?
  • Which test best reflects my testing style?
  • Can I read passages quickly?
  • Can I solve math problems quickly?
  • Is science a subject I excel at?
  • Have I taken advanced math classes like trigonometry or pre-calculus yet?
  • Do I need to take the essay?

Bottom Line

Just like some of us prefer apples over oranges, some students will find that they perform better on one test than the other. How you score on either test will vary depending on your level of preparedness and testing capabilities.

Our best advice is to take a bite out of both tests. This will require some planning ahead and additional test prep, but you’ll never know which test is better suited for you until you give them both a try. By taking both tests, you’ll maximize your chances of earning a high test score.

Need Help Preparing for Upcoming Tests?

At KD College Prep, we offer in-person and online test prep programs for students in grades 7-12. Each of our programs prepare students for both the ACT and SAT tests, as well as for the PSAT test.

If you need help creating a testing plan or more advice on which test is best for you, contact us to set up a free consultation with one of our advisors.

Emily Brehe-Gunter is the digital marketing director at KD College Prep.

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