When it comes to deciding whether to take the SAT or the ACT, many students find themselves overwhelmed by the choice. On top of all of their regular school work and extracurricular activities, they now have to spend time preparing for and taking a standardized test, possibly more than once. It is important for students to give themselves the best chance of doing well because test scores are an important factor in the college admissions process. (But keep in mind, test scores are just one of many factors colleges consider in making admissions decisions!) We typically recommend that students take both tests once and then focus on the one they felt better about to take a second time. However, here we are comparing the two tests so that students can make an informed decision about which test is right for them.


General Information

The recently redesigned SAT is made up of 4 parts: Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and the Optional Essay. The test is scored on a 1600 point scale, which is made up of two section scores: one for Math and one for Reading/Writing and Language. Each section is scored between 200-800 and the scores are combined for a total score out of 1600 points. The score on the optional Essay is not included in the overall score.

Total time (with Essay): 230 minutes

Total time (without Essay): 180 minutes

Reading Section

The Reading section is 65 minutes long and is made up of 52 multiple choice questions with 5 different reading passages. The redesigned Reading section now focuses on the idea of Evidence Based Reading, which means that the makers of the test want students to go back to the passage and find the answers there. There is significantly more time on the Reading section of the SAT as opposed to the ACT to allow for this. Students who like to have time to reflect and think about their answers rather than rushing through often prefer the SAT for this reason. All vocabulary questions are based on the use of a word in the context of the passage.

Writing and Language Section

In the Writing and Language section, students have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions from 4 passages.

This section asks students to “choose the correct expression in terms of standard written English sentence structure, usage, or punctuation, or the most rhetorically effective in the context of the passage.” Students read through a passage and, as they read, are asked to identify the correct usage of a phrase, punctuation, or grammar, or to determine whether information should be added or removed to make the passage most effective. The SAT Writing and Language section is similar in content and form to the English section of the ACT.

Math Section

There are two Math sections on the SAT: one which allows the use of a calculator, and one which does not. The Math Test is 80 minutes total, with 55 minutes to answer 38 questions with the use of a calculator, and 25 minutes to answer 20 questions without a calculator.

Math level required for SAT is Algebra 2, with a little bit of super-basic trig (SOH-CAH-TOA).  

The SAT includes more “paragraph”-like problems, where necessary information needs to be extracted out of the problem.  Often, extra or unnecessary information is given as well. The SAT tests a student’s ability to read into a problem, decipher it, and write this information in mathematical terms or equations.  Often, such equations do not need to be solved or simplified. 

On the SAT, students get more time per problem, but the problems are often more abstract and obscure.

Optional Essay

The SAT essay is 50 minutes long and asks students to analyze an argument presented in a reading passage. The task required of the essay is often new to students because they must analyze an argument rather than develop one of their own. While this can seem intimidating at first, many students find that they prefer this format because all support comes from the included reading.

The essay is given three scores by two readers (Reading, Analysis, and Writing). Each reader gives a score between 1 – 4 on each of the three criteria. The scores are then added together for a total score out of 24.


General Information

The ACT is made up of 5 parts: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing (Optional Essay). The test is scored on a 36-point scale, with separate scores out of 36 given for each section that are then scaled together for a total score also out of 36. The score on the optional Writing section is not included in the total score.

Total time (with Writing): 215 minutes

Total time (without Writing): 175 minutes

English Test

The English test on the ACT is 75 minutes long and is made up of 5 passages and 45 questions. It is similar in structure and format to the Writing and Language section of the SAT, though significantly longer. The English test includes questions related to production of writing, knowledge of language, and conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and punctuation.

Math Test

The ACT Math Test is 60 minutes long and is made up of 60 questions. The use of a calculator is permitted.  Math level for ACT is advanced Algebra 2/Precalculus, and more trigonometry knowledge (solving equations, simplifying, proving identities) is required.  Matrices are also included.

The ACT tests a student’s ability to apply actual mathematical knowledge and to solve a problem such that the final answer is obtained.  ACT, most often, includes actual mathematical questions where an equation or a diagram is given. 

On the ACT, the math questions are a lot more straight forward, but there is less time per problem, and the problems are often more mathematically involved.

Reading Test

On the Reading Test of the ACT, students have 35 minutes to read 4 passages and answer 40 questions. This is a considerably shorter amount of time to answer only 12 fewer questions than the Reading section of the SAT.  While the passages included are generally less difficult than those of the SAT, students do have to be able to quickly read the passages, pick up important details, and quickly answer questions about what they have read. There is little time for searching through the passage to find the correct answer. The topics for the passages on the Reading Test are social studies, natural science, literary narrative (including prose fiction), and the humanities.

Science Test

The Science Test is unique to the ACT (meaning there is no comparable section on the SAT). Students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions based on information found in reading passages, graphs, tables, and illustrations. This test measures a student’s ability to read and interpret scientific information presented, rather than on facts they have memorized. The ACT assumes that students have completed a course in earth science and/or physical science and a course in biology.

Writing Test (Optional Essay)

The ACT Writing Test is 40 minutes long and asks students to develop a perspective on a contemporary issue and discuss it in relation to at least one other perspective. Students are given a prompt containing a short passage summarizing an issue and three “perspectives” or ways of thinking about the issue.  Unlike the SAT Essay, support for arguments made in the ACT essay comes both from the student’s own knowledge about the issue and the information presented in the prompt.

The essays are scored based on four categories: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Two readers give scores between 1 – 6 on each of the four categories. The total score is then calculated from these separate categories for a total score out of 36.