ACT vs SAT: What’s the Difference?

Learn about the five key differences between the ACT and SAT in order to decide which test to take.

By Sydney Nikols | February 17, 2017

The ACT contains 216 questions while the SAT only contains 170.
Photo: Thinkstock

Standardized tests are a hugely important part of the college admissions process and schools accept both the ACT and the SAT, creating an obvious dilemma: Which test should you take? If you don’t have the time or money to take both, consider the key differences between the tests in order to make a decision that’s right for you.

When college admissions officers look at a student’s SAT scores, they examine each individual section. When they look at ACT results, they focus on the overall score.

Difference #1: The tests focus on different English skills.

The SAT is a verbally oriented test featuring more advanced vocabulary than the ACT. The ACT, however, is much more focused on grammar and punctuation. Perhaps most importantly, the SAT contains a required writing section that plays a key role in your overall test score. The ACT’s writing section, however, is optional and separate from the rest of the test, meaning that your writing score won’t affect your overall score, or composite score. For this reason, consider taking the ACT if writing isn’t your strong suit -- that way you can either tackle the section knowing that it won’t affect your composite score or you can avoid the section altogether (keep in mind, however, that some schools will require you to submit a writing section score).

Difference #2: The ACT contains more questions while the SAT contains more sections.

The ACT contains 216 questions while the SAT only contains 170. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the SAT is easier, though. ACT test takers tackle the test’s four sections (English, math, reading and science) consecutively, while SAT test takers jump back and forth between the test’s 10 critical reading, math and writing questions (meaning they tackle some reading questions, then math questions, then writing questions, then reading questions again, etc.). In deciding which test to take, consider whether jumping back and forth between tasks and subjects confuses or excites you.

Difference #3: ACT math questions are more advanced.

While both tests contain math sections, the ACT’s math questions are more advanced (both tests cover arithmetic, algebra I and II, and geometry, but the ACT contains trigonometry questions, too). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ACT’s math questions are harder, though; while some of the concepts are more advanced, the questions are posed more simply than they are on the SAT. Consider solving some sample ACT and SAT math questions online to help you decide which section you can comfortably and confidently tackle.

Difference #4: The ACT contains a science section while the SAT does not.

The ACT contains a science section that’s meant to test your reading and reasoning skills. You don’t actually have to be knowledgeable in science in order to do well on it, but if understanding scientific concepts has proven to be really difficult for you, consider taking the SAT -- that way you can avoid the subject altogether.

Difference #5: Admissions officers care more about your ACT composite score than your performance on individual sections.

When college admissions officers look at a student’s SAT scores, they tend to examine each individual section. However, when they look at a student’s ACT scores, they focus mostly on the overall score, or composite score. This means that you can do relatively poorly on a single section of the ACT without calling too much attention to it. As long as you get a high composite score, admissions officers will be impressed.

Armed with this information, you can now begin the important process of deciding which test to take. As you weigh your options, consider taking a free ACT practice test and a free SAT practice test. Doing so will allow you to become familiar with both exams and help you decide which test you can approach with the most confidence.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

SAT or ACT: Which Should You Take?
ACT: The Essentials
What's a Good SAT Score or ACT Score?
How to Improve Your SAT and ACT Scores

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