How are the SAT and ACT Different?

Looking to learn about the differences between the SAT and ACT tests? Everything from test structure and content to scoring systems.

Choosing the right college entrance exam can be a challenging task for any student, and with the two most popular options being the SAT and the ACT, it can be overwhelming to decide which one to take. While both exams are accepted by most colleges and universities, they differ significantly in structure and content. Understanding these differences can help you make an informed decision about which test to take. In this blog post, we will break down the differences between the SAT and the ACT.

How are the ACT and SAT different?

ACT book stacked on top of SAT book

As you prepare to take the first step into your collegiate career, it is important to know what requirements there are to get in. Most colleges require you to take some sort of entrance exam, two of which are the ACT and the SAT. These standardized exams are designed to assess the college readiness of students.

There are some major differences between the two, so you need to pick the right exam for you. To help you decide which exam to take, we will break down the differences between the two exams.

SAT vs ACT Section Breakdown

SAT Section Breakdown


The SAT Reading section tests your ability to comprehend and use information from texts, graphics, and other sources. It assesses your college-level reading skills and readiness for higher education.


The SAT Writing section of the SAT assesses your proficiency in writing clear and grammatically correct sentences, identifying errors in sentences, and understanding the meanings of certain words. This section also involves correcting errors in sentences.


The SAT Math section is divided into two sections. The first half of the test doesn’t allow a calculator, and the second does. Skills that they test for are algebra, problem-solving and data analysis, advanced math, and some additional skills.****

ACT Section Breakdown


The ACT Reading section measures your reading comprehension skills and your ability to answer questions about a text. It includes four passages of different lengths, some of which may require you to compare texts and interpret them.


The ACT English section of the test assesses a student's command of the language, including grammar, cohesion, and vocabulary. It aims to evaluate your ability to communicate effectively through writing and to identify potential errors that could affect your academic career.


The ACT Math section focuses on topics generally encountered by the beginning of 12th grade. It is written to emphasize reasoning and application of math, not the memorization or plugging numbers into formulas just to solve for answers. Calculator is allowed for all questions.


The ACT Science section covers most of what would have been taught in high school to students. It covers many subjects, such as biology, chemistry, physics, Earth science, and space science. Within these topics, the questions focus on the skills you need to succeed in college such as data interpretation.

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SAT vs ACT Questions Breakdown

SAT Section Breakdown

  • US and World Literature:1 passage and 10 questions.
  • Social Studies and History: 2 passages (or 1 passage, 1 set of paired passages) and 10 to 11 questions for each.
  • Science: 2 passages (or 1 passage, 1 set of paired passages) and 10 to 11 questions for each passage.
  • Paired passages: two passages that are shorter compared to one longer one
  • 65 minutes, 52 questions
  • Humanities: 1 passage, 11 questions
  • Social studies: 1 passage, 11 questions
  • Science: 1 passage, 11 questions
  • Careers: 1 passage, 11 questions
  • 35 Minutes, 44 questions
  • Algebra: 19 questions
  • Problem-Solving and Data Analysis: 17 questions
  • Advanced Math: 16 questions
  • Additional Topics: 8 questions
  • 45 multiple choice questions, 13 grid responses
  • 20 questions without calculator, 38 with calculator
  • 80 minutes, 58 questions


154 questions in 3 hours

ACT Questions Breakdown

  • Main ideas and details about the passages: 21 to 24 questions
  • Craft and Structure of the Writing: 10 to 12 questions
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 6 to 9 questions
  • 35 minutes, 40 questions
  • Production of the English language: 22 to 24 questions
  • Knowledge of the English language: 11 to 13 questions
  • Conventions of the English language: 39 to 41 questions
  • 45 minutes, 75 questions
  • Number and quantity: 5 to 7 questions
  • Algebra: 7 to 9 questions
  • Functions: 7 to 9 questions
  • Geometry: 7 to 9 questions
  • Stats and Probability: 5 to 7 questions
  • Integrating essential skills: 24 to 26 questions
  • All multiple choice
  • 60 minutes, 60 questions
  • Biology: 2 passages, 11 to 15 questions
  • Chemistry: 1 to 2 passages, 5 to 15 questions
  • Physics: 1 to 2 passages, 5 to 15 questions
  • Earth and Space Science: 1 to 2 passages, 5 to 15 questions
  • 35 minutes, 40 questions


215 questions in 2h 55 min

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SAT Scoring

For the SAT, each section is calculated separately and then added together. Each section is weighted differently, with math being worth 800 points in total and writing and reading each being worth 400 points. In total, the SAT is scored out of 1600.

ACT Scoring

The ACT is much simpler to figure out. Each section is out of 36 points, and the composite score is simply the average of all four sections of the exam. When you get an ACT score report, it will give you a composite as well as each section's score. Some schools will even take what is called a super score, where they look at your best score from each section over multiple tests. So if you retake the ACT and do better on specific sections, your super score can improve.

What part of the US takes the ACT or SAT? Does it matter where I live?

Test centers in the United States of America

While both tests have become widely accepted, there are still regional differences. Traditionally, the SAT has been taken by students in coastal states and colleges. The ACT was more heavily taken and required by midwestern states. Colleges and universities do not have a preference, but it never hurts to check entrance requirements to make sure your school isn’t one of the few that looks for a specific exam.

Even today, most coastal students take the SAT and midwestern students take the ACT but the number of students taking each is slowly approaching a more even spread throughout the country.


Choosing between the SAT and the ACT can be a challenging decision, but understanding the differences between the two can help you make an informed choice. The SAT focuses on reading comprehension, writing skills, and math, while the ACT includes an additional science section and emphasizes reasoning and application of math concepts. Both exams are scored differently, with the SAT being out of 1600 and the ACT out of 36. While regional differences exist in the popularity of each exam, colleges and universities generally accept either. It is essential to research your target schools' admission requirements to determine if they have a preference. Ultimately, preparing for and taking the exam that aligns with your strengths and skills is crucial to achieving your desired score and gaining admission to the college of your choice.

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