The SAT vs. the ACT: Differences, Similarities, and Deciding Which Test is Best For You

At first glance, the SAT and ACT don’t look all that different. When discussing college applications, the standardized tests are often lumped together. National colleges and universities accept scores from both tests, and both test students on a variety of subjects. However, investigate the two tests extensively (as, naturally, we’ve done at The Enrichery) and you’ll discover plenty of differences. Let’s take an in-depth look at the SAT and the ACT, and discuss how they compare in terms of subject areas, timing, scoring, and more.



Both the SAT and ACT consist of four timed sections that students tackle in a pre-determined order.

  • The SAT sections are: Reading, Writing/Language, Math without a calculator, and Math with a calculator
  • The ACT sections are: English, Math (with a calculator), Reading, and Science

Both tests offer an optional fifth section: the essay!

As you can tell just from the subject area breakdown, there are really two main differences: the amount of math and the amount of science.

  • The ACT is 25% math (one of its four sections), while the SAT is 50% math (two of its four sections).
  • In terms of content, the ACT includes substantially more geometry-based questions than the SAT. The ACT also touches on subjects that the SAT doesn’t, including trigonometry functions, matrices, and logarithms.
  • Another big math difference? The SAT provides you with geometry formulas, but the ACT doesn’t provide any!
  • Additionally, the ACT contains a dedicated Science section, while the SAT does not.



Look at each test’s overall time, and there’s not a big difference. The SAT is a 3-hour test, or 3 hours and 50 minutes if you include the optional essay. The ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes, or 3 hours and 35 minutes with the optional essay. However, the tests have differing numbers of questions, which is where the big timing differences come into play.

Here’s a handy little chart to see the breakdown of how much time you’ll have per question.


Reading 75 seconds per question

(52 questions in 65 minutes)

53 seconds per question

(40 questions in 35 minutes)

SAT Writing/Language

ACT English

48 seconds per question

(44 questions in 35 minutes)

36 seconds per question

(75 questions in 45 minutes)

Math Without calculator: 75 seconds per question (20 questions in 25 minutes)

With calculator: 87 seconds per question (38 questions in 55 minutes)


60 seconds per question

(60 questions in 60 minutes)



53 seconds per question

(40 questions in 35 minutes)


In a nutshell, the ACT is a faster-paced test. You’ve got less time to answer each question.



The SAT gives students a score ranging from 400 to 1600. The Reading & Writing sections are combined, with 200 to 800 points available, and both Math sections are combined, also with 200 to 800 points available.

The ACT gives students a score ranging from 1 to 36. Each of the four sections has 1 to 36 points up for grabs, and your ultimate score is the average of these four scores.

It’s important to note that both tests use a “right answers only” scoring system. In other words, you get awarded points for correct answers, but you are not penalized for wrong answers. Never leave a question blank! When possible, use process of elimination and make an educated guess. You may guess yourself into some extra points!



One big difference you’ll see between the SAT and the ACT lies in their Reading sections. The SAT Reading section asks many evidence-support questions, or questions in which you need to cite evidence from passages for your answers. Below, you can see a sample of this type of question (#10) and the question it’s requesting evidence for (#9).  The ACT does not ask these types of evidence-support questions.


Another big difference, in terms of types of questions, is the fact that the SAT has a few “grid-in” math questions, where you aren’t provided multiple-choice answers to choose from. The ACT only has multiple-choice math questions. Below are two examples of these SAT grid-in questions.



One of the best ways to figure out which test is right for you is to simply take practice tests of both! All Enrichery test prep students have access to unlimited mock tests, which means you can test and retest to see which test you’re more comfortable with, and which test you generally score higher on.

Another major thing to consider: are your math skills on the stronger or weaker side? On the SAT, math is twice as important as it is on the ACT. If math is your weakest area, you may want to choose to take the ACT instead of the SAT. A poor score on your ACT math section won’t drag down your total score as much as it will on the SAT.

There is one bright side if you aren’t confident in your math skills and you choose to take the SAT. While the ACT offers five answer choices for each math question, the SAT only offers four answer choices for each math question. In other words, you’ve got better odds of getting a right answer if you guess on a math question on the SAT!

One thing you absolutely can’t overlook is your specific state’s testing requirements. Depending on where you’re applying, you may be required to take either the ACT or SAT – in which case your preference, sadly, doesn’t matter much! (And, as our class of 2021 students know, you don’t necessarily have to take either because so many schools are waiving scores due to COVID-19!)

Now that you have a better idea about how the SAT and ACT compare, it’s time to get prepping! Students in The Enrichery’s 3-month SAT prep program improve their final scores by an average of 150-200 points, while students in our 3-month ACT prep program see a 4 to 6 point improvement on average. So… what are you waiting for? Reach out, and schedule your first session today!