The ACT test vs the SAT® exam: How are They Different?

The ACT test vs the SAT® exam: How are They Different?

The ACT and SAT are both important tests that colleges use for admission decisions and scholarship awards. However, there are a few differences that may sway students from choosing one or the other. Find out whether the ACT or SAT (or both) is right for you.

Test Structure/Subjects Covered

ACT Reading vs. SAT Reading

ACT and SAT Reading are both concerned with measuring your mastery of written English.

The ACT Reading portion has 40 questions based on 4 different reading sections. One of these sections will have 2 shorter passages to read. You’ll have 35 minutes to complete this section, and your average time to answer each question will be about 53 seconds.

The SAT Reading portion has 52 questions that revolve around 5 different reading sections. You’ll have 65 minutes to answer all these questions, which will give you about 69 seconds per question to answer.

Since these reading portions are based on your written English comprehension, you won’t need to worry about prior knowledge of the reading.

ACT Math vs. SAT Math

Both ACT and SAT math will look to assess your mathematical capabilities up to a 12th-grade level. The ACT’s Math portion features 60 questions that you’ll have to answer in 60 minutes. The SAT math portion will feature 58 questions and give you 80 minutes to answer.

This means for the ACT, you’ll have about 60 seconds to answer each question, whereas the SAT gives you 83 seconds to answer each question.This difference may be in part due to the different calculator guidelines that apply to each test. For the ACT Math test, you can use a calculator for all the questions. All questions are also multiple choice, and you will choose between 5 answers. For the SAT Math test, there will be 2 parts, and only 1 will allow you to use a calculator. Also, several questions will be grid-in answers instead of all multiple choice like the ACT.

ACT English vs. SAT Writing and Language

This is one of the first areas where the differences between the ACT and SAT start to show.The ACT offers an English portion of the exam, while the SAT labels theirs as “Writing and Language.” Both are used to measure your ability to comprehend written English, and you display this mastery by improving provided sentences.

The ACT English section features 75 questions that you’ll be given 45 minutes to answer. The SAT Writing and Language section features 44 questions which you’ll have 35 minutes to answer. This means that the ACT offers about 36 seconds to answer each question, while the SAT offers 48 seconds.

Now both tests are similar in length, however, ACT English vs. SAT Writing and Language use this time a bit differently. The ACT English portion challenges you to answer a higher number of “simpler” questions, while the SAT presents fewer questions with each one requiring a bit more thought.

If you are easily fatigued with English and prefer to spend more time considering one question, then the SAT may feel more comfortable. If you feel confident in your grasp of English and like a steady pace of questions, the ACT may feel more welcoming. Ultimately, to get a feel for what either portion is like, you should always consider a practice test.

ACT Essay vs. SAT Essay

One of the biggest differences between the ACT and SAT comes from how they approach writing assessments. While both tests used to feature an essay portion, now only the ACT offers an optional essay; the SAT optional essay was officially discontinued in 2021 (except for special cases).

It is important to remember that this test is not absolutely needed for every student, however, some institutions may prefer that their students complete this essay for an extra data point to consider.

The ACT Writing essay features one writing prompt that you have 40 minutes to complete. This prompt will focus on a highlighted issue and offer you 3 distinct perspectives. You can choose to either expand on one of the provided perspectives or develop your own. This optional essay is scored on 4 different metrics:

  • The strength of your ideas and analysis

  • How well you construct an argument

  • How well you organize your thoughts

  • Your language use and conventions

ACT Science

One of the defining traits of the ACT is the fact that it has a science section where the SAT does not. Previously the SAT featured subject tests, some of which focused on science, but these, too, have been discontinued. The ACT Science portion is 35 minutes long and features 40 questions. This means you’ll have about 53 seconds to answer each question. It is mostly concerned with your scientific reasoning and is not concerned with assessing your scientific subject knowledge. The questions in this section will be based on 7 passages that you’ll have to read, which will involve you analyzing data and research summaries and drawing conclusions based on shared viewpoints.

Test Length

The ACT and SAT are nearly identical in length, as both clock in at around 3 hours total. The only thing that may change the time you spend testing is if you choose to complete the optional essay portion for the ACT. This will require an extra 40 minutes, bringing your total ACT testing time to around 3 hours and 40 minutes.


The ACT and SAT feature different scales for their scoring.

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest score you can achieve. The optional essay is scored separately, and graded on a scale of 2 to 12, with 12 being the highest score you can achieve.

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600, with 1600 being the highest score you can achieve.

The national average for the ACT is 20.8 out of 36. The national average for the SAT is 1051.

The ACT calculates your score by averaging your grade on each of the tested portions:

  • English

  • Math

  • Reading

  • Science Reasoning

This means you can score a max of 36 on each section, with the average of all scores representing your final ACT score.

The SAT calculates your score by combining the grades of your Reading, Writing, and Language portions, together with your Math. You can receive a max score of 800 in both sections, with the maximum combined total equaling 1600, the highest possible score you can receive.

Does guessing on the ACT and SAT exams count against you?

Neither the ACT nor the SAT will penalize you for guessing. This means your score is not reduced if you are wrong, only increased if you are right. The SAT’s policy used to be different. However, it was discontinued in 2016.

How do you choose whether to take the ACT or SAT?

Many students are stuck deciding which test they should take, but it is also important to remember that you can absolutely take both. While most schools will only need one score, taking both is a good idea if you want to determine your better score between the two and share that score with the schools of your choice.

Some schools may ask for you to have a specific test score (they may request the ACT essay portion, for example). In that case, consider the guidelines set forth by the institution you want to attend. Otherwise, if you are free to take either, then a great idea is to take a practice test and see which you perform better on.

While both the ACT and SAT seek to judge similar skills, the method by which they approach this can differ. The ACT offers the science section, for instance, which is meant to judge your scientific reasoning capabilities. The SAT does not include this portion but attempts to judge similar skills with reading passages. If you feel you want to particularly emphasize your science skills and reasoning, then this could be another good reason to take the ACT.

Also, as pointed out before, while the tests are nearly identical lengths, the ACT features some sections with many more questions and, therefore, less time to answer. If you feel you work better with more time to think and reason, then you may feel more comfortable with the SAT. If you feel more confident doing math with a calculator, then the ACT, with its option to always use a calculator, may be a better test for you.

Another consideration should be made if you are an international student or English is not your first language. If you’re less confident with reading and comprehending the longer and more complex passages on the SAT, then the ACT may be a better option for you as well.

How much does it cost to take the ACT and SAT exams?

The ACT and SAT are close in cost, with only the optional essay for the ACT making up a big difference. The ACT costs $63 for just the base test and will cost $88 if you choose to take the optional essay. The SAT will cost $60, with the optional essay now discontinued.

There is an additional charge if you want to take part in an optional test service that will send you the test questions and correct answers afterward. If you intend on taking the tests multiple times and want to study your mistakes, this would be a good opportunity for you. For the ACT, this service will be $30 during registration, with the price increasing to $40 if you opt-in after the test. For the SAT, the service will cost $16.

Sending your scores to schools

It is important to consider what schools you want to send your scores to when you are taking your test. This is because the ACT and SAT both provide 4 free score reports to schools, but you must stipulate which schools within a short window around the test date. For the ACT, you get 4 free reports that you can designate on the day of the test or by the Thursday after you take the test. For the SAT, you get 4 free reports that you can designate on the day of the test or within 9 days of taking the test. After those time periods, for the ACT, it will cost you $16 per test per school to send your score. For the SAT, it will cost you $12 per school. The SAT also has an expedited option to rush your score report to a school, which will cost you $31. This is why you should come prepared for the test, as delays will make it much more costly.

How Can you Prepare for the ACT and SAT

With these differences listed, you may now have a better idea of which test you will want to take. At that point, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared with the best test prep you can find. Some good ideas for rigorous test prep are:

  • Asking friends, family, and others about their previous experiences

  • Viewing the practice material provided by the test makers

  • Taking the practice exams offered

  • Registering for a test prep program

The official test exams offered by the ACT and SAT are great resources and should be a part of your practice regimen. Diligent studying can be difficult, though, especially for such important examinations like the ACT and SAT.

If you want guidance on the best way to prepare, with proven strategies for tackling these challenges, then you’ll also want to consider a test prep program like Union Test Prep.

Our dedicated exam prep programs offer practice tests, study guides, flashcards, and more exam prep tools written by ACT and SAT experts. Our program is being used by over 800,000 students around the world and is absolutely free to start studying. Visit our site today, choose the test you want to prepare for, and begin on your journey to acing the ACT or SAT examination.

The difference between the ACT and SAT

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