What is the difference between the ACT and SAT?

What is the difference between the ACT and SAT?

Nov 10, 2022

What is the difference between the ACT and SAT? 

There are so many things that high school students need to be thinking about: school, work, sports, activities, and maybe even a social life. Throw in getting ready to apply to colleges and universities on top of that (which standardized test to take (ACT or SAT), volunteer hours, essays, which classes to take, etc ) and things can get CRAZY! So I’m here to offer help on which test to take by going through the 5 main differences between the ACT and SAT.




1. Time

Overall, each test takes about 3.5 hours (YAWN) without the optional essay portion, but the difference in timing is when you look at the time per problem. You have MUCH more time per problem on the SAT than on the ACT, so if you run tight on time during normal tests at school, chances are that you might have time issues on these tests. Now, just because ACT doesn’t give you as much time per problem doesn’t mean that if you run out of time to complete a section that you won’t do well. Since ACT is scored off of the number of questions you get correct, if you are doing WELL on the questions that you finish, then you don’t need to worry if you have to guess on a couple of questions due to timing.

****SIDE NOTE****
Timing is the main source of test anxiety for the majority of students I have worked with, but there are ways to help!

2. Math

(Fair warning: As an engineering and certified high school math teacher, this is my favorite part of both tests. LOL)
The ACT has questions up to and including Pre-Calculus, while the SAT only has questions up through and including Trigonometry, but if you are a person that uses a calculator like a security blanket, then you are going to be more comfortable on the ACT. The SAT has two math sections, a non-calculator and a calculator section (ACT uses a calculator for the entire math section). The SAT also has multiple choice and student-produced response questions (where you don’t get answers to choose from). The ACT is all multiple choice.

3. Critical Thinking

Even though you get more time per problem on the SAT test, it has the feeling of needing to think more. In fact, some of the questions on the SAT just feel downright tricky! This is also true on the Math section of the SAT; there are questions that you need to think a little out of the box to find the correct solution. The ACT is more direct. Obviously, you still need to think about it, but ACT doesn’t feel as tricky.

 4. Science

The ACT has a full section for Science, which SAT has several reading passages and several writing passages that include graphs and tables. Even though the section is called Science now, it actually used to be called Science Reasoning, which I think is a more appropriate title. There are 40 questions on this section of the ACT test, and only 1-3 questions are actually testing science knowledge. All the other questions are either about reading graphs and tables or applying information from the passage.

5. Vocabulary

If advanced vocab is your thing, then SAT is your test. Even though SAT gives you more time per problem on the test, the difficult vocabulary for the reading and writing portions means that you will use some of that extra time in trying to figure out what words mean! In addition to some of the reading passages feeling like they are written in a foreign language “Ye Olde English,” there is more vocab in context questions on the SAT than there are on the ACT.

All colleges accept either an ACT or SAT test scores for college admittance, so it really boils down to a matter of preference.   

So which test is a better fit?

The easiest way for you to answer this question is to start off by taking a practice test of each, and then see which format you are more comfortable with.  It really is just a matter of preference!!  Keep in mind that your life will be easier if you only spend time (and money) preparing for one of the tests. You will most likely spend quite a bit of time preparing, so make sure to choose the test that is easier for you!

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