Touted as one of the most common dilemmas among students, the SAT vs ACT conundrum is faced by almost every student aspiring to study abroad, especially in the United States of America.

You’ve probably heard of both the ACT and SAT, but how different are these tests? Both the tests generally cover the same topics, both ACT and SAT scores are used for college admissions and awarding merit-based scholarships, and both scores are given an equal preference by most colleges. Then how should one decide which test to give?

The scores from the SAT and ACT tests are a measure of the applicant’s academic aptitude and how the applicant stands out academically from the rest of the applicant pool. However, if you sit for both, you may end up harming your college application. Spending your time preparing for both test scenarios can result in a mediocre score in both rather than one impressive result, thus impeding your admission prospects

This blog aims to provide a detailed SAT vs ACT analysis to help you conclude which is the right test for you.

SAT vs ACT: How these tests differ?

SAT vs ACT: How to Choose the Right Test for Yourself

The SAT and the ACT exams have the following similarities:

  • Both contain similar sections (Reading, Math, etc.) in a predetermined order, with each section appearing just once
  • Both offer an optional essay section whose score does not count toward your total score
  • Both use rights-only scoring, meaning there is no negative marking for incorrect answers
  • Both contain entirely passage-based Reading and English/Writing questions (called “English” on the ACT and “Writing and Language,” or “Writing,” on the SAT)

However, there are many factors which also make the SAT and ACT differ from each other.

  • The SAT is slightly longer than the ACT
  • Both tests differ in the number of questions and time limits per sections

While these might seem like minor differences, tacking such differences can make or break your exam score. Students need to assess which testing scenario is ideal for them and in which test they are able to score more.

Let us get a comprehensive overview of how these tests differ:

Syllabus Reading

Writing and Language


Essay (Optional)





Essay (Optional)

Test Duration 3 hrs (without essay)

3 hrs, 50 mins (with essay)

2 hrs, 55 mins (without essay)

3 hrs, 40 mins (with essay)

Score Scored on a scale of 400-1600 Scored on a scale of 1-36
Calculator use Available for some math questions Available for all math questions
Mathematics Syllabus Algebra I and II

Geometry and Trigonometry

Arithmetic/Probability/Data Analysis

Algebra I and II

Geometry and Trigonometry


Reading Syllabus 5 reading Passages 4 reading passages
Science Syllabus None No fixed syllabus. Tests only science-based reasoning and critical thinking abilities.
English or Writing/Language Syllabus Grammar/Punctuation


Editing skills

Rhetorical skills


Sentence Structure

Essays Tests your comprehension abilities of a given text. Test your analytical and evaluation skills.
Frequency of Test Held 7 times a year Held 6 times a year
Examination Fee $46 (without essay) international testing fee

$60 (with essay) + international testing fee

$46 (without essay) + international testing fee

$62.50 (with essay) + international testing fee

  1. SAT vs ACT: Time per Question

    Here’s a section-wise breakdown of the SAT and ACT

    Section ACT SAT
    English (ACT); Writing and Language (SAT) 45 minutes
    75 questions
    35 minutes
    44 questions
    Math 60 minutes
    60 questions
    80 minutes
    58 questions
    Reading 35 minutes
    40 questions
    65 minutes
    52 questions
    Science 35 minutes
    40 questions
    Essay (optional) 40 minutes
    1 essay
    50 minutes
    1 essay

    A major differentiating factor among the two exams is the Time per Question. The ACT is notorious for being a time-pressured exam with the majority of the students failing to finish at least one of the ACT section. Earlier, while many students encountered time management issues in the SAT as well, the new SAT is even more stressful than the old one, but not as much as the ACT.

    The bottom line is that you’ll encounter less time per question on every section of the ACT than on the SAT with an average of 50 seconds per question on the ACT and 1 minute 10 seconds per question on the new SAT. This favours the argument in favour of the SAT and thus students must evaluate their time management and stress taking skills in mock tests before deciding on which exam to take.

  2. SAT vs ACT: Math Section

When it comes to testing math concepts, the SAT and ACT have slightly different syllabi. While both              the ACT and SAT lay a huge emphasis on Algebra, there are some additional concepts which are part          of the ACT syllabus but not much focussed upon in the SAT

    • 35-45 per cent of ACT Math contains questions on Geometry whereas in SAT, less than 10 per cent of questions belongs from geometry.
    • Trigonometry comprises about 7 per cent of ACT math and whereas less than 5 per cent of SAT math.
    • Few concepts like matrices, graphs of trig functions, and logarithms are tested by the ACT but not by the SAT

    What does this analysis mean for you? If you’re adept at algebra and data analysis, taking the SAT would play to your strengths. But if you’re comfortable with trigonometric functions and geometry, the ACT would be a better choice.

    Another differentiator between the SAT and ACT is the allowance of a calculator in the Math section. While you’ll be allowed a calculator on all Math questions on the ACT, the SAT additionally presents a No calculator subsection as well. This section consists of 20 questions and is 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT.  Whereas the Math calculator subsection has 38 questions and is 55 mins long.

    Therefore, it becomes essential to evaluate your speed math skills and whether you have an extensive need for a calculator. If you struggle with solving math speedily, you’ll be more comfortable and fare better on the ACT Math than on SAT. However, if you’re confident in your math skills, SAT might be the better option for you.

  1. Moreover, the ACT Math is a multiple choice test giving you at least a 20% chance of getting the answer right. Whereas, the SAT Math test is 80% multiple choice and 20% grid-ins, meaning you have to fill in the blanks with your own answers on the latter.
  2. SAT vs ACT: English Section

    The English section on the ACT and the Writing & Language section on the SAT are almost identical as they test many of the same concepts. However, there are a couple of differences still between the two tests:

    • Reading Passage Level: All of the passages on the ACT English section are relatively easy to read and can be said of typically 9th grade, whereas the reading passages on the SAT Writing & Language section can vary in difficulty, typically of the level of early high school to early college.
    • Graphic Questions: While the ACT contains all text-based questions are about the text, the SAT comprises of a couple of graphic and data-based questions on tables and graphs connected to the text.


  3. SAT vs ACT: Essay Section

The essay content also forms a major difference between the two tests. Although optional, the content of the essay largely depends on the test you take: SAT or ACT

The ACT essay question consists of a debatable issue with three perspectives presented on it. The students are asked to evaluate and present one’s own perspective. On the other hand, on the SAT, you’ll be given a 700-word passage and will be asked to write an essay explaining how the author builds his/her argument. The SAT essay doesn’t ask for your opinion, but only evaluate what is given in the passage.

This implies that if you’re going at analysing passages, SAT may be a better option for you. On the other hand, if you excel at debating or can come up with strong supporting arguments to your claims, the ACT can be a good fit for you

SAT vs ACT: Which is the right test?

Now that the differences are laid out, the best way to decide if taking the SAT, ACT, or both tests is right for you is to take a timed full-length practice test of each type. Compare results from each diagnostic test and do an in-depth analysis of your pain points and your strengths. Since the content and style of the SAT and ACT are very similar, factors like how you handle time pressure and what types of questions you find most challenging can help you determine which test is a better fit.

Another component to factor in when making your test decision is State Requirements. Go through this comprehensive list of state requirements for the ACT and SAT so that you can decide which test to with within your state of interest.

Talentnook is offering SAT Math Level 2 diagnostic tests to help you assess your Math skillsRegister here for a free SAT Math Level 2 Diagnostic Test

SAT vs ACT: How to Choose the Right Test for Yourself

Do remember that colleges and universities do not prefer one test over the other. So, play to your strengths and prepare early for best results!

In this SAT vs ACT dilemma, still having doubts about which of the two would be a good fit for you? Let us know in the comments below.