SAT Math vs. ACT Math: Which Challenge Are You Up For?

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I’ll be honest: math wasn’t my favorite subject in high school. When I was looking at college entrance tests, I knew I would have to work on it. I wanted to make sure I chose the math section that I felt I could improve the most on. I’m good at reading comprehension, and not so good at working in a time crunch, so I chose the SAT. 

Students often ask us which is better—the SAT Math section or the ACT Math section?

It can be confusing to try to figure out the differences between the SAT and ACT math sections, so we’ll break it down here. Let’s start off with some good news: there is no penalty for wrong answers on either test! As we will explain below, the math sections on both tests present slightly different challenges. Hopefully this guide will help you understand which one is more your speed!


On the ACT, you can always use your calculator for math. On the SAT, you can only use it on a certain section. 

  • The ACT has one section with 60 questions. You can use a calculator on the entire ACT math section. 
  • The SAT has two sections: one lets you use a calculator and one does not. 
    • The no-calculator section is 20 questions, and the calculator section is 38 questions.


The ACT is more of a time crunch. On the ACT, you have 60 questions in 60 minutes (technically 1 question in 1 minute, but because some questions are easier than others, you shouldn’t spend the same amount of time on each question!).

You have slightly more time on both of the SAT math sections. The no-calculator section gives you 20 questions in 25 minutes (technically 1 minute and 15 seconds per question). The calculator section gives you 38 questions in 55 minutes (technically 1 minute and 27 seconds per question).


The ACT has a much larger focus on geometry. If cosines and tangents are like hieroglyphics to you, get ready to practice them until they’re second nature.

The SAT has more word problems, as well as interpretation of tables and charts. The SAT also includes formulas at the beginning of the section. That means that you don’t have to memorize specific equations (for example, the formula for the area of a circle). These are the equations that the SAT includes: 


SH! Trade secret! You don’t really use these equations very much! You might refer to this once or twice, but the test goes by fast. Most people just use the equations that they know. Sorry, there’s no escape– you still have to memorize formulas.


1.) The ACT has more straightforward questions, but they do not offer equations at the beginning like the SAT. ACT questions are direct, but require prior knowledge. You need to remember equations for how to solve certain problems.

For example, this question: 

This is testing that you know how to calculate the tangent of an angle. 

I would simplify ACT questions as: you know it or you don’t

2.) The SAT asks a slightly different question: can you apply this equation to a real-life situation? For example, this question:

This question tests your grasp of percentages and algebraic expressions– concepts most people learn earlier than they learn trigonometry. However, you have to be able to translate their word problem into an equation, and also make sure that your equation equals exactly what the question asked. Often, the SAT doesn’t simply ask you to solve an equation, it asks: what equation do you need to solve? And then asks for the solution.  

I would simplify SAT questions as: math problems wearing Halloween costumes.

There’s a mix of questions on both tests– there are straightforward problems on the SAT and word problems on the ACT. The way I like to look at it is: what challenge are you more up for? For example, I despise trigonometry. I didn’t want to spend any more time learning it. The SAT word problems rarely confused me, and sometimes figuring them out was like a fun little puzzle. Every person has their own set of skills, so we highly encourage you to take the tests and see which one you feel better about. And don’t worry– we’ll be here to help you decipher those word problems!

If you would like to learn more about the ACT Prep Classes and SAT Prep Classes that The Enrichery offers, click here.