ACT vs SAT – 8 Differences to Help You Pick the Right Test


Many of you will have heard of the SAT and the ACT. Both happen to be crucial for College admissions in their own way. But, you need to take some time to understand which test works for you better. The SAT exam dates and ACT exam dates are usually fixed during the year, 6 times a year in India. For strategies and techniques, the SAT exam books and ACT books provided by The Princeton review are the best! You have enough and more mock tests to practise with and the ACT and SAT classes are most interactive to get the best out of you.

ACT vs. SAT. Let’s first understand the ACT Exam pattern and SAT Exam pattern and then move on to the question-which test is the right test for you!


So, looking at the above table, does ACT really look very different from SAT? Well yes, the time per question must already be giving you the jitters for the ACT. But wait, don’t be so hasty to make this decision solely based on this one aspect.

Let’s walk you through the similarities between these tests and then analyse the differences that would help you make the right pick.

  • The SAT and ACT are both standardised tests, nationally and internationally recognised.
  • The admission requirement for the schools in the US is the same via these tests.
  • Both tests help measure the problem-solving and comprehension skills of high school students that again are significant measures for success in college years.
  • You can apply to all the schools either with the ACT or SAT scores.

Now let’s examine the content of the 2 tests.


  • What ACT calls English, SAT calls Writing & Language. Both test the grammar and style of writing precisely via passages.
  • The order of the sections in each test is predetermined and no section appears again.
  • Both consider only the right answers for the raw points. There’s no penalty for wrong answers.
  • Both ACT and SAT have a big chunk of questions on Algebra.


  • The SAT is a slightly longer test than the ACT.
  • The score range is different for each.
  • There is a No-calculator Math section on the SAT. On the ACT, all questions are calculator questions.
  • The Math questions on the SAT have only 4 answer choices per question. ACT questions have 5 answer choices per question.
  • The number of questions per section and the stipulated time are different for each test.

Now does that mean the above differences are enough for you to decide which test to take up? Certainly not! There’s more to it than is visible. We will list down the 8 differences between the ACT and SAT that will be key indicators to your right choice of test.


1. Time Per Question

Time Per Question

Do you often face the pacing doldrums? Then SAT is what should be your call. SAT gives you more time per question.

Time per Question (min: sec)
Reading 1:15 0:52
Writing (SAT) / English (ACT) 0:48 0:36
Science NA 0:52
Math No Calculator – 1:15 1:00

We can clearly see that SAT gives far more time per question compared to ACT. However, SAT questions require a lot of reading/interpretation, unlike ACT.


2. Science Section

Science Section

The next starking difference is that there is no separate Science section in SAT, whereas ACT does. So all you Science wizards, ACT has a section entirely on your favourite subject! 40 questions, 35 minutes!! Not only that, a good quarter of your total score will be contributed by this Science section. Although SAT does not have a separate Science section, some passages test on Science topics and some graphs too. But this is going to be just one of the seven sub-scores, not a major score contributor like that of the ACT Science. So, ACT is the choice for those who rock in Science!


3. Evidence Support Paired Questions on Reading

Evidence Support Paired Questions on Reading

At least 15-20 questions of the SAT Reading comprise paired questions that give the support lines of evidence to answer questions. This type of question is NOT a part of ACT.

Here is an example of paired questions:

Example SAT

So given this difference, if you can connect the evidence lines in support to the answer of a question quite easily, SAT should be your choice. If not, go for the ACT. Each question is distinct from the other.


4. Significance of Math Score in the Final Score

Significance of Math Score in the Final Score

On the SAT, the Math is categorised into No calculator 20 questions and Calculator 38 questions. The raw points on this contribute to 50% of the total score of 1600. ACT, on the other hand, comprises a single Math section of 60 questions and hence contributes to only 25% of the composite score on 1-36.
Clearly, the Math section plays a bigger role on the SAT than on the ACT. So, if Math happens to be your strong forte, go for the SAT! A lower Math score on the ACT will not impact the total score because it’s a composite score of 4 sections. However, a low Math score on the SAT can do a lot more damage.

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5. Grid in Math Questions

Grid in Math Questions

Although both SAT and ACT tests with multiple-choice questions, the SAT Math has 13 questions- 5 on the No Calculator and 8 on the Calculator subsections as Grid in questions- questions that want the students to fill in the correct response without any options! Hence, if Grid-in questions give you a tough time, the ACT is your choice. All questions on the ACT are multiple-choice questions.


6. Questions in Chronology in Reading

Questions in Chronology in Reading

In the Reading section, the SAT has questions asked in chronological order which can be of big help. Finding answers to questions that come in a flow or sequence makes answering the Reading passage questions mighty easy. The following is an example of questions that follow a chronology. Now the great benefit here is if you have a question 13 that has no line reference mentioned, you can still locate the answer just after line 10. The context will let you fetch an answer.


An example of how the ACT Reading questions do not proceed in order and hence can become more difficult to answer and time-consuming too!


The above difference is certainly going to be important in determining whether it’s going to be ACT or SAT.


7. Types of Math Questions

Types of Math Questions

Both SAT and ACT a lot more on Algebra than any other component. However, ACT tests on some Math concepts that are never tested on the SAT. For instance, ACT has a good number of questions from Geometry, almost 35% to 45% of the Math section, whereas SAT may test as little as 10% on Geometry. ACT has around 7% of the questions testing on Trigonometry but SAT tests on a meagre 5 %. So for the ACT, the larger focus is on Geometry and Trigonometry questions. Also, ACT tests Matrices, Trigonometry functions, and logarithms. In the end, if you rock in Algebra and Data analysis, SAT it is. If you are a wizard in Trig and Geometry, go for the ACT.


8. No-Calculator Math Sub-Section on the SAT

No-Calculator Math Sub-Section on the SAT

On the ACT, you CAN use the calculator on ALL the questions. In contrast, the SAT has a separate No calculator section which has 20 questions to be answered in 25 minutes. Besides this, 38 questions to be solved with the calculator in 55 minutes. So, if you are fast and accurate without the use of the calculator, SAT is your best bet. If solving questions don’t come easily without the calculator, ACT comes to your rescue. Actually, all questions on the ACT and SAT can be solved without the calculator. And, the questions under the No calculator can be easily solved without the calculator too!

Okay, now that we’ve seen the major differences between SAT and ACT, let’s see how to make the right choice. There are 2 ways to make this decision:

  • Take mock tests of each, in the actual test scenario, timed and uninterrupted. See that you don’t take both on the same day or even one after the other. This might not reflect your actual score. Take the official prep test to get a more precise score. After the test, score both the tests using the scoring guide for each test respectively. You could even convert your ACT score to the SAT equivalent for the best comparison.
  • Take up our Princeton review Startup tests to easily determine which test will be appropriate for you.

Wishing you the best with your preparation with SAT or ACT, whichever is your right choice!


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