ACT® or SAT®?

The SAT® and the ACT®: similarities and differences

This article discusses the differences between the ACT® and the new SAT® (administered from 2016 onward) to help educators, parents, and students understand the way the tests work and decide which test might be a better fit for certain people.


Two things we should note upfront are that both tests are accepted at every accredited college and university in the United States, and that statistics show about 80% of students score in an equivalent score range no matter which test they take. This means that the primary reason a student might prefer one test to the other is usually due to personal preference, not the potential for an significant score difference.

How the tests are scored

The new SAT® has two subject categories. There are a total of 800 points possible in each section, for a total combined possible score of 1600. Although the essay is optional, some colleges and universities require it, but it is scored separately.


The ACT® has four mandatory sections. Each section has a score range from one to 36. The score from all the mandatory sections are averaged together for a total possible test score out of 36. The essay is optional on this test, although some colleges and universities require it, and it is scored separately as well.


The method used to score both tests is similar: only right answers affect the student’s score. Wrong answers and questions that are left blank neither add nor detract from the total score, and essays are scored separately for both tests.

SAT® subjects tested

There are two broad subject categories of the new SAT®: mathematics and evidence-based reading and writing. The new SAT® also includes an optional essay, which some colleges do require.

On the math portion of this test, students will see a focus on problem solving, data analysis, algebra, and geometry, with a bit of advanced math, such as basic trigonometry, thrown in as well.

On the evidence-based reading and writing portion of the tests, students will run into two sub-sections. The reading test is one, and the writing and language test is the other. In the reading test, students encounter three longer passages and one pair of shorter passages in four different categories.


For the writing and language portion, questions test students’ understanding of English grammar, diction (word usage), style, etc.


Finally, the optional essay, is a 50-minute section in which students have to read an argument that is presented and then write an essay analyzing the argument. Students are evaluated on three things: how well they understand the argument, how well they analyze the argument, and the quality of their writing. Students do not form their own opinion on the argument, the assignment is simply to explain the opinion presented.

ACT® subjects tested

For the ACT®, the subjects tested are a bit broader than the ones on the SAT®, but they cover very similar information. The four mandatory subjects are math, science reasoning, English, and reading. The ACT® also includes an optional essay, which some colleges and universities require.


In math, the ACT® tests basic math, algebra, geometry, and simple trigonometry.


The science reasoning section requires no outside knowledge of science. It is more like a series of science-based reading passages that include graphs and charts. Students must understand the information given in the charts and graphs and use it, along with what is written in the passages, to draw conclusions about the information presented.


English tests students’ knowledge of standard grammar, style, diction, etc.


Reading requires students to understand passages and answer questions in four different subject areas.


For the optional essay, students are given a writing prompt that explains two opposing points of view on an issue that applies to high school students today. Students are given 30 minutes to choose a side and write an argumentative essay on why the side they have chosen is preferable.

SAT® time breakdown

Here’s the breakdown on the time allotments for the New SAT®.


For math, there are about 57 questions. Students are given 80 minutes to answer those.

For language and writing, 44 questions in 35 minutes.

For reading, 52 questions in 65 minutes.

For the optional essay, students are allowed 50 minutes.


Overall, the test is three hours long. For students who opt to take the 50-minute optional essay, the time is three hours and 50 minutes of actual testing time. Students should expect to spend longer at the test center, though. Signing in, listening to the proctor’s instructions, and taking several breaks adds more time to the process.

ACT® time breakdown

For the ACT®, the time allotted for the mandatory portion of the test is just under three hours.


For math, students get 60 minutes to answer 60 questions.

For reading, 35 minutes for 40 questions.

For English, 45 minutes for 75 questions.

For Science, 35 minutes to answer 40 questions.

For the optional essay, students have 30 minutes to write their essay.


The total testing time is 2 hours and 55 minutes without the optional essay, and 3 hours, 25 minutes with the essay. As with the SAT®, note that the actual process takes longer than the testing time once you account for sign-in, instructions, breaks, etc.

SAT® reading: what to expect

For the new SAT®, students encounter 3 long passages and one pair of short covering the following categories: US and world literature, History and social studies, science, and United States Founding Documents or the Great Global Conversation (or, culturally important works that deal with civil and political life, for instance Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a Dream” Speech.)


For a few of the questions, students will need to analyze charts or graphs in order to answer correctly.

ACT® reading: what to expect

The ACT® reading section tests students in four areas: prose fiction/literature, natural science, social science, and humanities. Questions determine how well students understood the passages. Questions may ask student to identify the main idea of a passage, make inferences, draw generalizations, understand vocabulary in proper context, and more.


The ACT® and the new SAT® are similar tests that differ in a few key areas. Students often prefer one of the tests over the other based on their personalities, but most students perform in the same range on both tests. Whichever test students decide to take, proper preparation is key to a score that opens doors. With this information, you should be one step closer to making an informed decision about which test to take. Good luck and happy studying!