Versus the SAT, the ACT generally presents questions in a less complex manner but requires students to know more advanced concepts and work more quickly.
However, our experience working with thousands of students over the last 17 years is that fewer than 10% of students will score significantly different on the SAT vs the ACT.
After the SAT remade itself in 2016, the ACT and SAT are incredibly similar and the overwhelming majority of students will score equivalently.
Both the SAT and the ACT test core concepts from Math, English, and Data Analysis. They are both peer-normed tests (you’re scored in comparison to your classmates). They both have an optional essay. They both are nearly universally accepted at US colleges, and they go back and forth between which exam is technically more popular when counted by completed tests.
How to Choose to Take the ACT or the SAT
Take them both. When you start to get serious about your ACT/ SAT prep–hopefully early in your junior year in high school–start by taking a practice test of both the ACT and the SAT under timed conditions. (Practice for ACT or SAT for free with Piqosity).
Focus your energy on the test that you scored better on–or in the likely event you scored equivalently–focus on the test you felt more comfortable with. When it comes time to take an actual ACT or SAT, take them both if your time and budget allow.
Preparing for one test will almost equally prepare you for the other. And doing any preparation at all will also likely help you out in core academic classes in school like Math, English, and Science.
Primary Differences Between SAT and ACT
SAT Reading vs ACT Reading
- The SAT Reading test contains more historical text, whereas the ACT is mostly contemporary.
- The SAT Reading test requires students to support some answer choices with evidence from the passage; the ACT does not.
- The SAT Reading test includes a handful of data analysis questions; the ACT Reading test does not include these questions, because that is the role of the ACT Science test.
SAT Writing & Language vs ACT English
- The SAT Writing and Language test is both shorter and slower than the ACT English test.
- The ACT English tests includes questions about the “passage as a whole,” but the SAT does not.
- The SAT Writing and Language test includes a handful of data analysis questions; ACT English test does not include these questions, because that is the role of the ACT Science test.
SAT Math vs ACT Math
- The SAT Math test features simpler concepts tested in a complex way. The ACT Math test includes more difficult concepts tested in a more straight forward way.
- The SAT Math test doesn’t get much more difficult than Algebra 2, whereas the ACT includes some advanced concepts from Precalculus.
- The SAT Math test includes some science problems, the ACT Math test does not include these questions, because that is the role of the ACT Science test.
SAT vs ACT Science
- SAT mixes 21 data analysis and science questions throughout all sections of the test except for the Essay, whereas the ACT has an entire 40-question test mostly dedicated toward data analysis in the form of the Science Test.
- The ACT Science test includes experimental design questions where students have to understand how to manipulate variables; the SAT does not have this.
- The ACT Science test will occasionally ask 1 to 2 “outside knowledge” science questions, which expect students to know some basic scientific concepts.
SAT Essay vs ACT Writing Test
- The SAT Essay focuses on rhetorical analysis of a presented passage whereas the ACT focuses on crafting an argument after being presented different points of views.
SAT Reading versus ACT Reading
The SAT and ACT are similar in how they test the skills students have learned in their English and Language Arts classes. Both tests contain a section that focuses on reading comprehension, and both contain a section that focuses on English grammar, style, and editing.
The SAT has an overall maximum score of 1600, and 800 of those possible points come from what the College Board calls “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” (with the other 800 being associated with Math). “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” (or EBRW) is just a fancy name for the first two sections of the SAT – the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test – combined. Each of these tests has a maximum score of 400 points, so they factor equally into a student’s EBRW score on the SAT.
The ACT, meanwhile, presents its English and Reading Tests as two of the four multiple-choice sections on the ACT (the other two being Math and Science). For each multiple-choice section, the student’s raw score is converted into a “Scale Score” from 1 to 36. The average of the student’s scale score from each section results in their overall ACT score, or composite score. So, the English and Reading sections each have equal weight in determining a student’s composite score.
At the end of the day, then, English and Reading each make up one fourth of a student’s score on the ACT and on the SAT. Knowing that neither test strongly favors language arts skills over math skills or vice versa, then, it’s important to compare the format and content of each one – since understanding which test is most suited to a student’s skillset can help give them an edge when it comes to scoring highly and gaining admission to the college of their choice.
Length and Timing
Let’s start with the basics: the length and timing of the SAT and ACT Reading tests.
|Number of Questions||52||40|
|Number of Passages||5||4|
|Number of Questions per Passage||10-11||10|
|Time Allotted||65 minutes||35 minutes|
|Time to Complete Each Passage||13 minutes||8 minutes and 45 seconds|
This brings us to our first key takeaway:
- The SAT Reading test is longer, but the ACT Reading test requires students to work more quickly.
It might be said that where the SAT Reading Test is a marathon with its length exceeding one hour, the ACT Reading Test is more of a sprint, with less than one minute allotted for each question—and that’s without taking reading time into account.
This isn’t to say, however, that working through the SAT Reading Test should be done at a leisurely pace; it justifies its longer length with its inclusion of 5 passages, as opposed to the ACT’s 4, and with the way it asks questions (more on that below).
Types of Passages
In terms of the reading material students will see on the SAT and ACT, the breakdown of passage types is similar between the two tests:
|1 passage – U.S. and World Literature||1 passage – Literary Narrative/Prose Fiction|
|2 passages (or 1 passage and 1 pair of passages) – History/Social Studies||1 passage – Social Science|
|2 passages (or 1 passage and 1 pair of passages) – Science||1 passage – Humanities|
|1 passage – Natural Science|
The general story is the same with both exams – students will encounter a mix of literature, humanities, and STEM passages, regardless of which test they take. Moreover, students can consistently expect to see a paired set of two, shorter passages on each test. One key difference, however, lies in the age of each passage:
- Compared to the ACT, the SAT contains a greater proportion of passages that are older – and, for that reason, more difficult to comprehend for many students.
In an analysis of three official SAT practice tests, the oldest passages were from 1791 and 1792. The tests also included passages from 1857, 1869, and 1911, alongside more contemporary passages from as recently as 2014. Other passages fell somewhere in between, with years of publication including 1938, 1953, and 1999.
In a similar analysis of three official ACT practice tests, the oldest passage was from 1984, and the bulk of the passages were published in the early 2000’s – including two from 2002 and three from 2008.
Before writing off the SAT for its inclusion of more antiquated passages, though, keep in mind the differences in timing and test length discussed above: while the ACT’s passages may be written in more up-to-date prose styles, students must work through them particularly quickly and efficiently in order to maximize their scores.
Types of Questions
A final area of difference between the SAT and ACT Reading sections is the types of questions that students are asked.
On the surface, they SAT and ACT are very similar in this regard; both break their Reading questions down into 3 main categories that roughly correspond with one another:
|Information and Ideas||Can I understand and interpret the author’s key ideas and arguments?||Key Ideas & Details|
|Rhetoric||Can I analyze how the author constructed their argument and organized their writing?||Craft & Structure|
|Synthesis||Can I draw connections between the information and ideas found in two separate texts?||Integration of Knowledge & Ideas|
What sets the tests apart here are two key question types that you’ll find on the SAT, but not on the ACT:
- The SAT’s Reading Test contains “evidence questions” and questions that require students to analyze quantitative information (that is, graphs, tables, and charts). The ACT’s Reading section does not.
“Evidence questions” require students to locate the “best evidence” for the answer to the immediately preceding question; they look like this:
These questions show up frequently on the SAT Reading Test – there can be as many as two per passage – and they require students to carefully read the lines referred to in each answer choice to determine whether they contain key evidence to support the answer to the previous question. This creates a subtle layer of complexity to the test, in that “evidence questions” may be challenging to get right when the student is unsure about their answer to the previous question.
The SAT’s Reading Test also contains quantitative information in the form of graphs, tables, and charts that accompany 1 or 2 passages in each test. The passages that include these figures will generally be accompanied by 2 to 4 questions that test students’ understanding of the graph, table, or chart itself, or of how the quantitative information in the figure relates to the information in the passage.
In contrast, quantitative information doesn’t show up on the ACT’s Reading Test – largely because the ACT tests students’ data analysis skills through the Science section, which the SAT does not have an equivalent to.
SAT Writing and Language versus ACT English
The differences between the Reading Tests on the SAT and ACT are generally much more significant than the differences between each exam’s test of grammar, style, and editing. The SAT’s Writing and Language Test and the ACT’s English Test both present students with a series of passages, each of which is paired with a set of questions that refer to particular words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs within the text.
On both the SAT and ACT, these questions ask students to:
- Determine the appropriateness and correctness of various aspects of a passage’s grammar, punctuation, and word choice.
- Determine whether (and why) particular sentences should be added to or deleted from a passage.
- Determine the logical order of ideas and sentences in a passage.
As with the Reading section, the differences between the two tests begin with timing and question count:
|Number of Questions||44||75|
|Number of Passages||4||5|
|Number of Questions per Passage||11||15|
|Time Allotted||35 minutes||40 minutes|
|Time to Complete Each Passage||8 minutes and 45 seconds||9 minutes|
|Time to Answer Each Question||About 50 seconds||About 30 seconds|
- The ACT English Test requires students to work more quickly compared to the SAT’s Writing and Language Test.
Apart from timing, there are just a couple of other key differences to consider when comparing the two exams:
- On the SAT’s Writing and Language Test, one or two passages is accompanied by quantitative information (in the form of graphs, tables, or charts). In order to answer certain questions, students must consider how (or whether) the information in these figures supports the information given in the passage. In contrast, the ACT’s English Test does not include any figures for students to analyze – just written text.
- Compared to the SAT, the ACT’s English section more frequently tests students on their comprehension of an entire passage. For instance, the set of questions associated with a passage will frequently end with a question like this:
These questions about the “passage as a whole” do not have a direct equivalent on the SAT – though the SAT does test similar skills by, for instance, asking about the effectiveness of a given introductory or concluding sentence.
Ultimately, these differences are relatively minor; for most students, any preference between SAT Writing and Language and ACT English will come down to their level of comfort with answering questions about grammar and style quickly and efficiently.
Summary: SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing versus ACT English and Reading
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to make a definitive statement about whether the SAT or the ACT is “harder” – and the same applies when comparing individual sections of the two tests. More than anything else, the SAT’s Reading and Writing and Language Tests and the ACT’s Reading and English Tests are just different from one another.
Those differences are often subtle, and the best way to determine which test will give a student the best opportunity to score well and impress college admissions officers is to try them both out, and to then compare their performance on each test, side-by-side – as well as their subjective level of comfort with the timing and content.
It’s also worth noting that any preparation a student does for the SAT is not wasted effort in the event that he or she ultimately decides to shift focus toward the ACT, and vice versa – the skills learned in preparing for one test are highly transferable, so it’s okay to change course midway through the college preparation journey.
SAT Essay versus ACT Writing
Both the SAT and ACT come along with an optional (but strongly recommended) written component: the SAT Essay and the ACT Writing Test.
The differences between these two tests are much less subtle than the differences between the other humanities-focused test sections. This is because the task that each test asks students to complete is fundamentally different.
The SAT Essay
On the SAT, students are tasked with writing an analysis of a recent non-fiction passage. The test always begins with a formulaic introduction to the non-fiction text:
This introduction is always the same; the only element the SAT changes from test to test is the name of the author (in this case, Jimmy Carter).
This is followed by the non-fiction passage itself (which is between 650 and 750 words in length), below which is a direct statement of the writing task at hand:
Again, this prompt is always the same; the only changes the SAT makes to each test is the author’s name, and the brief summary of their argument that is provided in the prompt (here, for example, the argument is “that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be developed for industry.”)
In short, students must write an essay in which they analyze the author’s use of various devices – such as those described in the first box above – to convince the reader of the validity of a particular argument. The student’s task is not to write an argument of their own; instead, the goal is to analyze the “why” and the “how” of the author’s argument.
The ACT Writing Test
The ACT, meanwhile, does ask students to craft an argument, in the form of an argumentative essay about a particular topic. The test always begins with a brief description of an issue of wide relevance to modern society, like this one:
After that, the test presents a set of three possible perspectives on that issue:
Finally, the test presents students with their writing task:
This argumentative writing task is always the same; the only portion of the prompt that the ACT changes for each test is the phrase that comes after “Write a unified, coherent essay about . . .”
Because the SAT Essay and ACT Writing Test are fundamentally different, it follows that they also differ in the way they are scored:
- On the SAT, two different readers give each essay a score between 1 and 4 in each of three “content dimensions”: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The two readers’ scores are then added together, resulting in a total score between 2 and 8 in each dimension.
- On the ACT, two different readers give each essay a score between 1 and 6 in each of four “domains”: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Language Use & Conventions. The two readers’ scores are added together, resulting in a total score between 2 and 12 in each dimension.
There is also a subtle difference in the way the SAT and ACT report these scores to students: in addition to individual domain scores, the ACT reports a “subject-level score” for the Writing Test as a whole, which is the rounded average of a student’s domain scores. On the SAT, however, a student’s scores in the three content dimensions are kept separate and displayed on the score report as three separate scores between 2 and 8.
More importantly, though, a student’s scores for both the SAT’s Essay and the ACT’s Writing Test are kept completely separate from their scores on the rest of the test; the essay component does not factor into the SAT’s composite score out of 1600, or the ACT’s composite score out of 36.
One final consideration is that 40 minutes are allotted for the ACT Writing Test, whereas 50 are allotted for the SAT Essay. Because the SAT Essay involves a reading component as well as a writing one, though, this difference in timing is fairly trivial; most students will spend similar amounts of time drafting and revising their essay for each test, since it should take approximately 10 minutes to thoroughly read and annotate the passage that accompanies an SAT Essay task.
Ultimately, the choice between the SAT Essay and the ACT Writing Test will boil down to personal preference. Students should consider where their strengths lie when it comes to timed, analytical writing tasks and choose accordingly – or, better yet, try out both essay tests and go from there.
Generally speaking, students who excel when it comes to literary and rhetorical analysis in their English classes may prefer the SAT Essay. Meanwhile, students who enjoy debate and argumentation, or who are great at coming up with supporting examples on the fly (whether drawn from life experiences, current events, or literary works), may prefer the ACT Writing Test.
For students who are currently taking AP Language and Composition (a popular course for college-bound 11th graders), thinking about the Free Response questions on the AP Language and Composition Exam might help make the decision between the SAT and ACT a little bit easier:
- The SAT Essay is similar to the AP Exam’s “rhetorical analysis question” (the second of three Free Response questions on the test)
- The ACT Writing Test is similar to the AP Exam’s “argument question” (the third of three Free Response questions on the test)
Juniors who are enrolled in AP Language and Composition are encouraged to consider which of these two essay tasks they are most comfortable with and skilled at, as this may help them determine whether the SAT or ACT is best suited to their skill sets.
The ACT Math section versus the SAT Math section
Standardized, cumulative math tests should all be the same, right? After all, the two standardized tests used for college applications (the ACT and the SAT) in the United States must be very similar in what they are testing, otherwise, how would colleges rate the comprehension of a student of basic college readiness in mathematics and science?
Although this may seem to be the most logical conclusion, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. The differences between what the SAT and ACT test are many and each test favors a different type of student.
The SAT, with its 58 math questions in 80 minutes total, is split between a 25-minute no calculator portion and a 55-minute with calculator portion. The ACT consists of one math section that consists of 60 minutes to answer 60 questions.
This averages out to a pace of approximately 1 minute and 23 seconds for each math question on the SAT and exactly 1 minute per math question on the ACT. While 23 seconds doesn’t seem like much, consider that this means a student would need to be answering questions at a pace that is approximately 38% faster on the ACT as compared to the SAT.
The immediate question that comes to mind is: “Why on earth would the ACT require such a faster pace of its students?” The answer to that question lies in how the ACT asks its questions and the concepts that it expects students to know.
ACT versus SAT in testing Trigonometry
The ACT tends to ask questions in a simpler way, while requiring the student to know and understand higher level math concepts. Whereas basically every question on the SAT can be answered with a first semester of Algebra 2 or lower, the ACT requires concepts that often aren’t taught until the end of a Precalculus course.
A great example of this is question 55 from the 2018-2019 released ACT:
To solve this question, the student must know that csc x = 1/sin x and that since the period of sin x is 2π , the period of csc 4x is 2π/4 or π/2.
What the question is asking is very straightforward and not confusing. The challenging aspect of this question is whether the student has encountered and understood both what periodicity of trigonometric functions is and what the cosecant function is, not if they understand the wording and what the question is asking.
To contrast this, consider question 19 from the math without calculator of SAT Practice Test #1:
To solve this question, the student must first draw a right triangle as follows:
Then, the student must notice that the third angle in this right triangle is actually 90° – x°, which gives:
It is easy to see now that cos (90° – x°) = 4/5, simply by the SOH-CAH-TOA acronym to remember right triangle trigonometry. This is a concept that is often taught in a Geometry course, prior to Algebra 2. However, the SAT has disguised a simpler problem as more complex, simply by the wording and mechanics of the problem. This concept should be familiar to more students, but I would expect many students that understand this concept to miss this problem.
Therefore, the SAT gives each student 38% more time per question. The questions are often trickier than their ACT counterparts.
ACT versus SAT most challenging problems
One of the other main differences between the ACT and the SAT math sections is that the ACT math section will very often include number theory problems, a concept that the SAT doesn’t touch on and is not present in most American high schoolers’ math educations. This makes number theory the most difficult problem type on the ACT math section for many students.
A great example of this is a problem that a student of mine brought in from a released ACT:
There are 90 equally spaced dots marked on a circle. Shannon chooses an integer, . Beginning at a randomly chosen dot, Shannon goes around the circle clockwise and colors in every th dot. He continues going around and around the circle coloring in every th dot, counting each dot whether it is colored in or not, until he has colored in every dot. Which of the following could have been Shannon’s integer ?
There is no formula to solve this problem and a student may have never encountered a problem like this in any math class they have taken. The point of this question is to test the student’s ability to problem solve on the fly, something that the SAT would not expect of a student.
The solution to this problem is to complete some basic casework (a standard mathematical technique, where you focus on smaller problems). Through this process the student must realize that only a number that is coprime to the number of dots will completely color all the dots. This means that the number of dots and the number n must have no common factors except for 1. Only one answer choice is coprime to 90 and that is 7. Thus, the correct answer is E.
The concept of numbers being coprime and having to complete casework is foreign to most high school students and goes far beyond the scope of the SAT.
The hardest concept tested on the SAT is the Polynomial Remainder Theorem, as demonstrated in question 29 of the math with calculator section of SAT Practice Test #1:
The correct answer to this question is D. This is basically a definitional question in which the student is asked to demonstrate that the remainder when a polynomial is divided by x – n is the value of the polynomial at n. This concept is taught generally in the first semester of an Algebra 2 course.
Note that even though this question is seemingly straightforward based on the definition that I’ve provided, in a testing scenario the wording of the answer choices will appear foreign and the wording of the question is somewhat confusing as well.
SAT is incorporating science problems in the math sections
There has also been an attempt by the SAT to cater its offerings to compete with the ACT Science section as well.
This is shown clearly in problem 27 of the math with calculator section of SAT Practice Test #2:
Two samples of water of equal mass are heated to 60 degrees Celsius (°C). One sample is poured into an insulated container, and the other sample is poured into a non-insulated container. The samples are then left for 70 minutes to cool in a room having a temperature of 25°C. The graph above shows the temperature of each sample at 10-minute intervals. Which of the following statements correctly compares the average rates at which the temperatures of the two samples change?
- In every 10-minute interval, the magnitude of the rate of change of temperature of the insulated sample is greater than that of the non-insulated sample.
- In every 10-minute interval, the magnitude of the rate of change of temperature of the non-insulated sample is greater than that of the insulated sample.
- In the intervals from 0 to 10 minutes and from 10 to 20 minutes, the rates of change of temperature of the insulated sample are of greater magnitude, whereas in the intervals from 40 to 50 minutes and from 50 to 60 minutes, the rates of change of temperature of the non-insulated sample are of greater magnitude.
- In the intervals from 0 to 10 minutes and from 10 to 20 minutes, the rates of change of temperature of the non-insulated sample are of greater magnitude, whereas in the intervals from 40 to 50 minutes and from 50 to 60 minutes, the rates of change of temperature of the insulated sample are of greater magnitude.
The correct answer is D. This is simply asking the student to make a comparison of data trends and determine during which intervals it is changing most rapidly. The ACT would never ask a math question like this because it relegates these questions to the science section.
A concerted effort is being made by the SAT to keep up with the ACT’s offerings and it is necessary for a student to be prepared to switch between the thought processes for completing math problems and for analyzing scientific data.
To summarize, since the ACT math section tests higher level concepts that are worded more simply and require the student to go more quickly, this would likely be most suitable to a student that has had a full year of Precalculus education, including a rigorous background in trigonometry. The SAT math section tests very basic algebraic concepts for the most part and simply tries to word it confusingly. If a student has solid fundamentals in algebraic concepts up through the first semester of an Algebra 2 course as well as some basic geometry knowledge, the SAT may be a better choice, given the student can parse through the more confusing wording.
Ultimately, each student must decide for themselves which test is right for them and should take practice tests for both the ACT and SAT before dedicating copious amounts of time to one test.