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What is the Difference Between the ACT and the SAT?

We break down the major differences between the ACT and the SAT to help you compare and find the best test for you.

ACT vs SAT: Scoring


ACT Scoring SAT Scoring
ACT Scoring Your ACT score will be on a scale of 1-36, where the final score is a composite score, or the average of your scores on the 4 multiple choice sections (Writing is not included in the composite score)
SAT Scoring Your SAT score is an overall score out of 1600, where the final score adds together the scores from your math and reading & writing section (Writing is not included in the overall score)

In both tests, there is no penalty for wrong answers. The ACT is based more of an average score, whereas the SAT is an aggregate score of different test scores.

ACT vs SAT: Subject Matter

Subject Breakdown ACT SAT
Subject Breakdown Subject Matter
ACT 4 Sections: English, Math, Reading, Science (plus, an optional writing test)
SAT 4 Sections: Reading, Writing & Language, Math with calculator, Math without calculator (plus an optional essay)

There are a couple of major differences between the SAT and ACT subject matter:

The ACT has an extra section for science, which is not included in the SAT.

It’s important to note that the SAT has two math sections: one where you can use a calculator, and one where you cannot. You are allowed to use your calculator throughout the ACT, but you will not be given formulas to work with, whereas forumals will be provided for the SAT math section.

The ACT reading section is relatively easy to understand, measured at a 9th-grade reading level throughout the entire section. The SAT reading section will vary in difficulty throughout the exam, so some passages will be more complex than others to read.

ACT vs SAT: Section Length & Timing

Section ACT SAT
Section English (ACT); Writing & Language (SAT)
ACT 45 minutes; 75 questions = 36 seconds per question
SAT 35 minutes; 44 questions = 47 seconds per question
Section Math
ACT 60 minutes; 60 questions = 1 minute per question
SAT 80 minutes; 58 questions = 1 minute, 23 seconds per question
Section Reading
ACT 35 minutes; 40 questions = 52 seconds per question
SAT 65 minutes; 52 questions = 1 minute, 15 seconds per question
Section Science
ACT 35 minutes; 40 questions = 52 seconds per question
Section Essay (optional)
ACT 40 minutes
SAT 50 minutes

As you can see from the chart above, the timing per question is much shorter for the ACT, so you finishing will be more of a time crunch. The SAT is slightly more generous with timing per question.

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Author: Alex Caffee

Former Marketing and Business Analyst at Niche. Dessert aficionado. Currently living and working in New York City.