The Differences Between SAT and ACT tests

The ACT vs The SAT

Page 2: The Differences

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New SAT Notice: The content on this page has been updated to reflect the March 2016 changes to the SAT (otherwise known as the New SAT).

The differences between the SAT and the ACT

I’m going to skip the random differences in formatting, number of questions, number of sections, etc., and get right to what really matters:


The SAT and the ACT test almost identical material – with a few key exceptions.

Both tests have optional essays. Both tests have math sections. Both tests have reading comprehension sections. Both tests have “grammar” sections. And, for the most part, the material tested by these sections is practically identical. Thanks to the changes to the SAT, there are now almost ZERO material differences between these exams. The New SAT math section has toned down its logical reasoning elements and added a few more of the advanced math concepts covered by the ACT (trigonometry, matrices, etc.), and the grammar knowledge required is practically identical.

Learning the material for one exam will help you perform well on the other.

A) The SAT no longer emphasizes challenging vocabulary words.

SAT emphasizes vocabulary far more than the ACT does The Old SAT used to be famous for its “vocabulary-specific problems” – each exam contained numerous questions that had to do almost purely with your knowledge of vocabulary. Because of the changes made to the New SAT, this is no longer the case. You’ll still need to answer a few “vocabulary in context” problems that will ask you what certain words mean in context, but you don’t need to do any “pure vocabulary” studying to take the New SAT. It’s much wiser to learn the proper strategies for the reading section and figure out HOW to answer these problems, because with the right strategies, you won’t even need to know what the words themselves mean.

B) The ACT tests slightly more complex, more advanced math.

The ACT tests slightly more complex, more advanced mathBoth exams test almost identical mathematical material. You need a strong grasp on arithmetic, algebra, and geometry to thrive. And the New SAT has added some of the advanced concepts formerly reserved only for the ACT. But in my analysis, the ACT still tests greater DEPTH of these concepts.

Roughly 9 out of the 60 problems on the ACT math section have to do with “advanced” mathematical concepts, including trigonometry, imaginary numbers, advanced geometric shapes, and logarithms, that are tested less superficially on this exam than they are on the SAT. On the New SAT, you basically just need to know what SohCahToa is, whereas on the ACT, you really need to know how to use that concept in a variety of situations.

If you haven’t learned these concepts in school, the ACT will present small additional challenges in the math section. Please note: this does NOT mean that you should wait until you’ve covered these topics in school before you begin to prep. None of these concepts are particularly hard to learn, and can be picked up in minutes with the right guidance – schools just take a long time to teach them because they rely on an outdated classroom learning model that forces you to keep pace with your peers. But any student can learn all the required concepts in a matter of weeks, not months or years.

Just know this: if you don’t view yourself as a “strong math student,” the ACT will probably be a bit harder on a material basis. If you’re advanced in math, and have a strong grasp on the more advanced topics, the ACT’s material will be much easier than the somewhat more “watered down” material on the SAT.

The SAT and ACT require identical grammatical and writing skills for the English / Writing+Language sections, and for the essays

C) The SAT and ACT require identical grammatical and writing skills for the English / Writing+Language sections, and for the essays

Not a single fact or concept is different on one test than on the other. If you learn all the material required for the SAT, you won’t need to learn a SINGLE new thing in order to get a perfect ACT score (and vice versa). It’s all a matter of strategy.

D) The essays you have to write are different. Not easier or harder, but different.

Both tests have optional essays that don’t affect your overall score (they give you a separate grade for the essays that most admissions committees don’t really care about). The ACT gives you a set of arguments and asks you to pick the best one of the three options, with a bit of reasoning for why you think it’s best. The New SAT gives you a fully-written essay and then asks you to evaluate that essay and find the evidence, the reasoning elements, and the structure. Neither one is easier or harder, but they require different strategies – so the material differences between these essays is non-existent.

E) The ACT has a “science” section that has nothing – I repeat, NOTHING – to do with science.

The ACT has a “science” section that has nothing to do with scienceA lot of people are horrified by the ACT science section. They think that it presents an entirely new sphere of knowledge that you need to master. This is not the case (on a side note, you can check out my free guide to ACT science here).

The ACT “science” section could more accurately be named the “using information in graphs and charts properly” section. It requires zero knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, geology, etc. The ACT science section does require the right strategy, but the material on this section has nothing to do with science.

Example: an ACT science question might ask, “if birds had mass extinction events in 1234, 1754, and 1910, what might graph 3 suggest about the main cause of extinction for birds?”
Looking at graph 3, you’ll see that there were massive increases in methane during the years 1230, 1750, and 1906. One of the answer choices will be, “birds die from high methane concentrations in the air.”

This isn’t scientific knowledge – this is just common sense. But this section does take some getting used to. You need to figure out how to quickly and accurately decipher the graphs and charts presented. Again, however, I can’t state this enough – you don’t need to know any actual science to get a perfect ACT science score.

If the material is so similar, then what IS the difference between these tests?

Just because they test similar material does not mean that they’re similar exams. The difference between these two tests comes down to one key concept:


The ACT is insanely more fast-paced and “time-intensive” than the SAT!

The SAT is confusing, but easier, whereas the ACT is incredibly straightforward, but harderPut another way: the SAT and the ACT both test you on the same basic material in a very similar manner, but the ACT gives you way less time per problem to go through the same set of steps (and it bunches together the problems with fewer breaks).

Here’s a breakdown of the time allotted per each problem type on these two exams:

ACT Time Per Problem

English: 75 problems in 45 minutes.
36 seconds per English problem
Math: 60 problems in 60 minutes.
60 seconds per math problem.
Reading: 40 problems in 35 minutes.
52.5 seconds per reading problem.

SAT Time Per Problem

Writing+Language: 44 problems in 35 minutes.
48 seconds per Writing+Language problem.
Reading: 52 problems in 65 minutes.
75 seconds per reading problem
Math: 58 problems in 80 minutes.
83 seconds per math problem.

Take a look at the comparative sections. You’re given an extra 12 seconds per “grammar problem,” 23 seconds per math problem, and over 22 seconds per reading problem. These are HUGE differences. Furthermore, the SAT contains far FEWER problems overall!


The ACT is ludicrously time-rigorous and forces you to answer far more problems.

The ACT is time-rigorousIf you’re capable of maintaining your focus and working quickly, then you might be a big fan of the ACT (and you will have a HUGE edge on the competition). If you get stressed out easily, or don’t work well under time pressure, or need more time to think, the ACT might be your worst nightmare.

Time management is important on the SAT – it is EVERYTHING on the ACT.

I spend about 10% of my focus with my SAT students on time management techniques. I spend about 70% of my time with ACT students on time management techniques. The ACT is a test of timing. You need to fly through. You have less time per question, and you need to simply “pound it out.”

Almost half a student’s success on the ACT math section boils down to understanding which questions to skip. You have 60 minutes for 60 questions, all at once, and if you accidentally spend 6 minutes on question #17…kiss your score goodbye. That’s at least 5 questions you won’t get to answer.

I could write a book on this subject (and I’ve written a free ACT crash course that you can check out at any time), so I’ll come to my conclusion early:

If you don’t need extra time, are focused, and have “sitting power” – the ability to plow through material without distraction – you have a HUGE advantage on the ACT. If you’re easily distracted, have problems managing time, or get overwhelmed by pressure and need frequent breaks, you should avoid the ACT AT ALL COSTS.

Again, you know yourself much better than I do. Can you sit down with 4 hours’ worth of homework, emerge 4 hours later, and be finished? That’s a somewhat rare ability, but if you have it – you will crush the ACT. If you have ADHD (like I do), or need lots of breaks, or have trouble managing your time – the ACT will be extremely difficult.

Now that you have a better idea of the two tests’ similarities and differences, let’s get down to brass tacks: which test should you take? Fortunately, the answer is remarkably simple to figure out. Just click the button below to learn how you can pick the best test for you!

Section Summary: The material tested on the SAT and ACT is almost exactly the same, as are the formats. The ACT math material is slightly more challenging, but not by much. The science section on the ACT has nothing at all to do with science. The essays are different, but neither one requires previous material knowledge. By prepping for one exam, you’ll be prepping for the other exam’s MATERIAL, but the real difference between the two tests has nothing to do with material and everything to do with TIMING. The ACT is blisteringly fast-paced and requires a very focused, “good under pressure” mind. The SAT is much more “leisurely” (though I’d never actually call it that). The most important thing is to figure out which test is best for YOU.
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