What Are the Differences Between the SAT and ACT?

What Are the Differences Between the SAT and ACT?

The differences between the SAT and ACT center on the exam structure and the skills you need to get a high score. The SAT includes math, reading, writing and language, and an optional essay section, while the ACT also features a science component. These college entrance exams also have different scoring formats and time limits, but either one can help you get into college.

Test Structure

The biggest differences between the two main college entrance exams are the way they’re structured and how the sections are ordered. The SAT features three required sections in the following order: reading, writing and language, and math. In contrast, the ACT features four required sections: English, math, reading, and science reasoning. Both exams include an additional essay option that may enhance your score.

Length of Time

Altogether, the two tests take about the same amount of time. The required sections take about three hours and just under four hours if you take the test with the essay.

The timing of each section differs between the two tests, though if you take the SAT, it gives you more time per question than the ACT does. You’ll spend a total of 80 minutes on math, 100 minutes on reading and language, and 50 minutes on the optional essay on the SAT. If you take the ACT, you’ll spend 60 minutes on math, a total of 80 minutes on reading and language, 35 minutes on science, and 40 minutes on the optional essay.

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Below you’ll find the differences in time per question if you were to spend the same amount of time on each question in a given section:

Science Skills

The SAT doesn’t include a science component, however, you’ll occasionally come across questions dealing with scientific passages, data, and charts on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections. On the other hand, the ACT features a 35-minute science reasoning section.

Although basic science skills are important, you don’t have to be a whiz in this subject to get a great score on this part of the ACT. Rather than testing your science knowledge, this portion actually challenges your reasoning skills in a scientific context. Be prepared to interpret graphs, analyze tables, and break down scientific hypotheses in this section of the ACT. 

Math Skills (No Calculator Vs With Calculator)

Both the SAT and the ACT feature math sections, but the material and format are different. You’re allowed to use a calculator for every math question on the ACT, which makes double-checking your answers a little easier.

However, the SAT breaks the math portion of the test into two sections, a longer one that allows you to use a calculator and a shorter one that prohibits calculators. The No Calculator portion of the Math section consists of 20 questions and is about 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT. To excel on the calculator-free portion of the SAT, you’ll want to work on your mental math or at least practice quickly solving equations on paper. 

Reasoning vs. Knowledge

Even though the ACT includes a science reasoning component, overall, this exam requires you to have a strong knowledge base in each subject. Excellent math skills, a strong comprehension of trigonometry, and a solid understanding of grammar and syntax can help you boost your score.

In contrast, the SAT tends to reward reasoning skills. This exam tests reading comprehension and critical thinking and requires an excellent vocabulary.

Optional Essays

Whether you take the ACT or SAT, you’ll have the option to include a written essay component. Keep in mind that some colleges require you to take the essay, while others do not.

For the SAT essay, you’ll read a passage before writing your essay dissecting the author’s argument using evidence and reasoning. In other words, you will not be giving your own opinion. For the ACT essay, you’ll read a short passage about an issue and then analyze the different perspectives on this issue. But unlike the SAT Essay, you’ll also give your own evaluation and perspective on the matter.

Score Format

The scoring format for the two exams couldn’t be more different. The top score on the SAT is 1600, with 800 points for the math portion and 800 points for the reading and writing sections. The total SAT score is the sum of the two sections, for a composite score ranging from 400 to 1600. The essay, which is not part of the composite score, average scores from four different areas from two graders. Your SAT essay score can range from 2 to 8.

In contrast, the ACT scores each of the four test sections between 1 and 36. Your total ACT score is an average of your four sub-scores, for a composite score between 1 and 36. Similar to the SAT, the ACT essay averages your scores from two graders, for a total essay score ranging from 2 to 12.

Once you’ve decided which college entrance exams to take, start thinking about your next steps toward college. Take a few minutes to fill out the FAFSA® form and get a head start on searching for financial aid for college.