What are the Main Differences Between the SAT and ACT?

We spend a lot of time and space in our newsletters diving deep into every aspect of the college admissions testing world, from breaking news to in-depth analysis of the trends you need to know about. But it never hurts to go back to the basics, and that’s what we’re going to do here. Whether you are a curious parent or a seasoned educator, we’re hoping you can get some insight into the SAT and the ACT.

If you’re a visual learner, take a look at our SAT vs. ACT Test Comparison Guide, which you can download and share with your student. There’s also a handy conversion tool on that webpage that lets you convert SAT scores to ACT equivalents and vice versa.


Why are there two different college admissions tests? Simple – history!

In 1926, Carl Brigham, a Princeton professor, adapted an IQ test administered to the US Army, creating the first iteration of the SAT. Usage of the test expanded gradually, and by the end of WWII, it was the first standardized college admissions test to be taken by thousands of students.  

In 1959, Everett Franklin Lindquist, a professor at the University of Iowa, pioneered an alternative to the SAT: the ACT. For the next fifty years, the two tests battled for supremacy; generally speaking, the SAT was favored by schools on the East and West Coasts, while the ACT was the test of choice for schools in America’s heartland. These days, all schools will take either test. That allows students to focus on the test that best suits their particular testing style.

Format and Timing

When it comes to basic format, the two tests are roughly comparable. They both have a reading comprehension section, at least one math section, and a language section. They’re not identical: the SAT has a calculator-free math section, and the ACT has a section that tests science literacy. What’s more, the timing on the two tests is very different. Overall, we tend to say that the SAT is a marathon, while the ACT is a sprint. Students have less time per question on the ACT than the SAT. Here’s a rundown of the tests:

Section Time Questions Time per question
Reading 65 minutes 52 75 seconds
Writing and Language 35 minutes 44 48 seconds
Math No Calculator 25 minutes 20 75 seconds
Math Calculator 55 minutes 38 87 seconds
Optional Essay 50 minutes 1 50 minutes


The SAT’s total time is an even three hours (three hours and 50 minutes for students who take the essay).

Section Time Questions Time per question
English 45 minutes 75 36 seconds
Math 60 minutes 60 60 seconds
Reading 35 minutes 40 52.5 seconds
Science 35 minutes 40 52.5 seconds
Optional Essay 40 minutes 1 40 minutes


The ACT’s total time is two hours and 55 minutes (three hours and 35 minutes for students who take the essay).

As you can see, students get more time per question on the SAT than they do on the ACT. That doesn’t make it the better test, or even the better test for your student. The two tests also have differences in content and in the types of questions they ask.

Content and Question-Level Differences

In a broad sense, the two tests measure the same basic student skills: reading comprehension, the ability to write in standard English, and mathematical reasoning skills. We asked our content experts how much test material overlapped between the two tests, and they said around 75%.   

What’s the other 25%, then?

Well, for one, there’s the ACT’s Science section. The SAT does feature scientific passages in both the Reading and the Writing and Language sections, but they don’t come anywhere near the ACT’s Science section in terms of complexity. The ACT Science section is a fast-paced run through six science passages (which could be on anything from geology to physics to biology). Now, we should be clear: the ACT’s Science section is a science literacy test, not a science knowledge test. It’s not forty questions about biology class. Students will only see one or two questions in each passage that asks them for outside knowledge; all of the other questions will ask them about information that is found in the passage itself.

Math is another area where the two tests diverge. On the whole, the SAT focuses heavily on algebra. The SAT also features a significant amount of graph-reading and trend-mapping; students will need to be able to read graphs and understand some basic statistics concepts. They can expect a lot of two- and three-part questions, as well as a lot of word problems. Most of the math tested on the SAT is tested in the context of a word problem. For a lot of SAT math problems, the goal is to model the correct way to solve the problem, rather than to pick the right number. For example, a question might present a scenario and then ask the student to choose one of four equations that would model the relationship presented in the problem.  

The ACT, on the other hand, takes a sort of “buffet-style” approach to math content: a scoop of algebra here, a dollop of geometry there, and a nice trigonometry garnish.  Students can expect to see everything from arithmetic to trigonometry on the ACT. The test features geometry fairly prominently, whereas the SAT barely has any geometry problems at all. The ACT math questions tend to be shorter and more straightforward than the SAT’s math problems, to generalize broadly.

The ACT and SAT Reading sections also differ. Both sections give students passages and then ask questions about the content in those passages, but that’s where the similarities end. The SAT’s passages tend to be longer, with spikes in difficulty that students should be prepared for. The SAT may also use classic literature or historical documents, so there’s a strong possibility that students will be confronted by archaic language and complex ideas. The ACT’s Reading section gives students less time to work through the passages, but the passages themselves tend to be shorter and more consistent in difficulty.

So, what test is best for my student?

We could write a book about the differences between the two tests, and it still wouldn’t give a 100% accurate assessment of what test would benefit which student. It’s possible that students who read above grade level, who struggle with geometry and benefit from more time, would do better on the SAT; it’s also possible that students who are stronger in math and science might do better on the ACT. But it’s not a guarantee. There are so many factors to the tests – question complexity, content, and timing – that the only way to determine what test is best for your student is to have them take a practice test of each.

Baseline practice testing is important for a lot of different reasons, and we address those reasons here. One of the most important functions of baseline practice testing is that it helps students determine what test to focus on. Prepping for both tests at the same time isn’t a very good idea; it’s much better to find the test that is best and go from there.

There are a lot of different ways to take those practice tests – and we’re offering some this month! Come test drive the SAT and ACT with us.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or info@applerouth.com.