Battle of the Tests: Differences Between the ACT and SAT

Is there life after death? Is the earth flat or round? Does life exist on other planets? What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? These questions have occupied the minds of great thinkers for many generations. Well, maybe not the last one, but it is safe to say many students have sought the answer to this question when preparing to apply to college. Unfortunately, the makers of the SAT and ACT have not yet had a summit to discuss and publish the similarities and differences between their tests. Luckily there are test prep enthusiasts who have caught on to the slight differences between these two standardized exams.


The most apparent difference between the two tests is their scoring scale. The ACT is on a 36-point scale while the new SAT is out of 1600 points. The national average for the ACT is a 21. The new SAT predicts its national average will be around 1010; however, until the data comes out, no one will know for sure. In addition to being scored on different scales, the two tests calculate their scores differently. The ACT score is an average of all four sections, whereas the SAT score is the summation of its two sections. However, there is one similarity! Neither test has a guessing penalty. This means wrong answers are not penalized on the ACT or the SAT.


The overall length of the two tests is quite similar: the SAT is 3 hours long and the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes (excluding the optional essays). However, on the ACT, there is less time per question. This requires that you read and think more quickly on the ACT than on the SAT. For example, the SAT the calculator section of the math test has 38 questions in 55 minutes, whereas the ACT math section is 60 questions in 60 minutes. That’s almost 50% more time per question on the SAT math.


One of the biggest differences between the two tests is how the sections are structured. The SAT has two sections, Evidence Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) and Math. Within EBRW, there is the reading test and the writing and language test. Additionally, SAT math is divided into a calculator and no calculator section, each of which has a combination of multiple choice and write-in answers. The final section of the SAT is the optional essay.

The ACT on the other hand contains four tests: English, Reading, Math, and Science. The fifth section is the optional essay. English and Reading are comparable to the two EBRW tests on the SAT. In contrast to the SAT, math is a single section, rather than two. Lastly, the ACT has a separate science test. At first this may seem like a deal breaker if you are not confident in science. However, the science section is essentially more reading comprehension but with graphs and tables. The SAT integrates the same type of data reading skills in the reading test. When it comes down to it, both tests are testing very similar content and skills.

Insider Tips

All this information can be monotonous and difficult to put together with regards to which test would be best for you to take. Here are some insider tips which may help:

  1. If you struggle with test anxiety or are a slow reader, consider the SAT – you will have more time to get it all done!
  2. If one of your section scores, like science, is much lower than the others, it will have less of an impact on your overall score on the ACT than on the SAT.
  3. Both tests are viewed equally by colleges – there is no “better” test!
  4. Still unsure? Take a practice test of each and see how you do!
  5. For when you do take the test: no month is harder than another. Since these tests are standardized, the grading scales will account for a test being “harder” than another. Take the test when you’re ready and don’t worry about if you will get an “easy” or “hard” test.
  6. Call A-List!

This blog post was written by A-List Tutor, Alice Halter.


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