Both the ACT and SAT are nationally recognized standardized tests and are accepted by all U.S. colleges. The ACT and SAT scores are used for college admissions decisions and awarding merit-based scholarships. However, both of them have their own differences. Let’s find out.

Particulars SAT ACT


Writing and Language

Math (No calculator)

Math (Yes calculator)

Essay (optional)



      Math (Calculator allowed)


      Essay (optional)


      3 hours (without Essay)

3 hours 50 minutes (with Essay)

2 hours  55 minutes (without Essay)

3 hours 40 minutes (with Essay)

Score 400 to 1600 with increment of 10 points 1 to 36 with increment of 1 point
Penalty for guessing No No
Test Format Paper pencil test

     Computer based test (outside US)

       Paper pencil test (US)

Test dates 4 days in a year  (in India) Around 12 days in a year (Varies)
Test fees $113.50  ($96.50 without essay) $166.50 ($150 without essay)
Question type Problem solving and Grid In Problem solving
Reading section 5 passages 4 passages
English or Writing and Language section 4 passages 5 passages
Additional concepts in Math Geometry, Trigonometry, Complex numbers Advanced Trigonometry, Matrices, Logarithms
Calculator usage Scientific /Graphing calculator allowed for one section Scientific/Graphing calculator allowed for the math section
Science section No Science section

Knowledge in Science is not tested

Science section tests the critical thinking skills

Essay Optional – Students are given a long article to read, analyze and write Optional – Students are given a paragraph on an issue to test your analytical and evaluation skills

Colleges will accept either the SAT or the ACT or both. So which one should you take?

It’s all about the numbers. Some students end up scoring substantially higher on the SAT; others do better on the ACT. The best way is to take a full-length test for both the SAT and the ACT to help you determine which test is a better fit with your abilities.

ACT questions tend to be more straightforward

ACT questions are often easier to understand on first read. On the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you’re being asked before you can start solving the problem.

After the 2016 changes, the SAT Writing and Language Test has become more like the ACT English Test. However, the ACT remains more straightforward on the whole. The questions on SAT Reading are often more abstract than those on ACT Reading.

The SAT contains questions that have been specially designed to serve some specific purpose: for example, the “paired questions” on the Reading Test to judge command of evidence, and specially designed math questions to judge the understanding of math concepts.

The SAT still requires a wider vocabulary

While neither exam tests esoteric or difficult words directly, the passages on the SAT tend to be more complex and dense, and they are full of words that many students would not know. Students who have better vocabulary skills and who are able to understand these passages have an advantage on the SAT.

The ACT has more Science, than the SAT

The ACT has a separate Science section. But you don’t need to know anything about amoebas or chemical reactions for ACT Science. It tests your Science reading and reasoning skills: with rare exceptions, the answers to all the questions are in the passages.

The SAT does not have a Science section, but it does provide a separate Cross Test Score for Analysis in Science. This Cross Test Score is based on selected questions in the Reading, the Writing and Language, and the Math tests. Two of the five passages on the Reading Test are on Science topics.

While neither the ACT nor the SAT requires much Science knowledge, the separate section means that the ACT overall has more Science content than does the SAT.

The SAT has more History and Social Studies than the ACT

As for Science, the SAT provides a separate Cross Test Score for Analysis in History/Social Studies, based on select questions on the Reading Test, the Writing and Language Test, and the Math Test. Two of the five passages in the Reading section relate to History/Social Studies topics. The SAT has as much History/Social Studies as Science, and the History/Social Studies content on the SAT is of a higher level than that on the ACT.

The ACT tests a greater number of Math concepts

The ACT syllabus includes more Math topics than the SAT: for example, matrices and logarithms. That said, the ACT Math section is not necessarily harder, since many students find ACT questions more straightforward than those on the SAT.

The essay tasks are very different

On the SAT, students are given a long, well-constructed speech or article to read and analyze. Using evidence from the text, students have to explain how the author builds the argument and how the author persuades or influences the audience. Separate scores are awarded for three parameters – Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

On the ACT, students are presented with a paragraph about an issue and three different perspectives on that issue. Students have to analyze the given perspectives and have to present their own perspective along with justification. Separate scores are awarded for four parameters – Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

As of 2016, the essay is ‘optional’ on both the SAT and the ACT.

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36 and the SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600

Three points on the SAT isn’t a big deal, but three points on the ACT could be the difference between your target school and your dream school.

Your performance affects your overall score differently on the SAT and the ACT

As the Composite Score on the ACT is an average of the scores on the four tests, a small difference in the performance in one test may not change the Composite Score. However, on the SAT, any difference in performance in any section will directly reflect in the Composite Score as the Composite Score is the sum total of the two Sectional Scores. So, if you happen to be weak in one particular area, the ACT may suit you better than the SAT: this weakness will not reflect so much in your composite score; especially because colleges have traditionally paid more attention to the ACT composite score rather than to the ACT score breakup.

To take a full-length practice test for the SAT and the ACT please visit the nearby center.


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