Difference Between ACT and SAT: Math, English, Science & Reading

Difference Between ACT and SAT: Math, English, Science & Reading

A note from the author, Paweł Dąbrowski, PhD, education expert with 10+ years of experience. He publishes his work in many prestigious media outlets and academic publications focused on education:

Standardized tests have become part and parcel of academic life. While it is not always a requirement for college admissions, SAT and ACT tests may have an impact on your application. But before you take them, it is important to understand their differences so that you can better prepare yourself for these tests. First and foremost, one is not better than the other nor is more preferred by college admission officers (Pittman, O., June 2020). Another thing that you will realize when scanning through the differences between the ACT and the SAT is that they are more similar than different.

Standardized high-stakes achievement tests often present a very structured format, with strict time limits, a component of speededness, a large number of items, often of multiple-choice character, and consequences attached to the test result (Stenlund et al., 2018). You will find both the ACT and SAT not veering away from this format.

But there are subtle differences between the two college admission tests. This article aims to help you weigh which test to take when taking both is not an option.

ACT vs. SAT: The Key Differences Table of Contents

  1. SAT Writing Language vs. ACT English
  2. SAT Math vs. ACT Math
  3. SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading
  4. SAT vs. ACT Science
  5. SAT Essay vs. ACT Essay
  6. SAT Scoring vs. ACT Scoring
  7. SAT Timing vs. ACT Timing
  8. SAT Cost vs. ACT Cost

Both the ACT and the SAT have math, reading and writing subjects, an optional essay section and both follow rights-only scoring, that is, there is no penalty for wrong answers. And although there used to be a stark divide between ACT and SAT takers by region—generally, more students take SAT in the east and west coasts and more take ACT in the midwest (The New York Times, August 2013)—that line has started to blur (StudyUSA.com, November 2016). In 2019, 2.2 million students took the SAT while 1.8 million completed the ACT, a 10% difference. The silver lining is, a significant number of students took both tests (Moody, J., June 2020).

Source: The Princeton Review, 2017

Still, as college admission test scores have an impact on the chances of putting one’s foot onto the campus of a preferred higher learning institution, with 88% of four-year colleges and universities placing moderate or considerable importance on them (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2015 cited in Appelrouth & Zabrucky, 2017), whatever perceived advantage you may think you can get from one test over the other is always a good mind leverage if only to optimize your test score.

Content Differences between the ACT and SAT

The key differences in content between the ACT and the SAT lie in the fact that there is no Science in the SAT and the range of Math topics is broader in the ACT. Subtle variations in their approach to assessment per section also exist, as detailed below.

Average Annual Cost of 4-year Degree in the US

Type of InstitutionAverage Annual Cost of Degree
Public 2-year in-state institution$50,880
Public 4-year in-state institution$87,800
Public 4-year out-of -state institution$153,320


SAT Writing Language vs. ACT English

Both the ACT and the SAT use passage-based format to assess the students’ English language skills, how they understand, process and use information. In both tests, this section is divided between conventions, which include grammar, usage and punctuation, and expression, which tackle style, organization and effective language use. However, is a difference between SAT and ACT when it comes to focus and format among other things.

Differences in English/Writing & Language tests:

  1. Focus. The SAT has more questions on expression, while the ACT tends to have more questions on conventions. For instance, the SAT devotes 55% of the test on the expression of ideas, while 45% on standard English mechanics like the difference between compound and complex sentences. Meantime, the ACT has around 45-60% of the questions on conventions (Usage and Mechanics), while 40-55% more or less are dedicated to expression (Rhetorical Skills) (Heimbach, A., June 2017).
  2. Format. In the ACT, all questions are text-based. The SAT, on the other hand, may have tables, charts or graphs thrown into the passages called Informational Graphic Questions. These visual elements on the SAT evaluate the student’s ability to interpret data or a scientific chart correctly. Incidentally, the SAT compensates for its lack of a Science section by incorporating scientific topics in its Writing & Language section.
  3. Reading level. The passages on the ACT are relatively simpler, around 9th grade, than the ones on the SAT, which can include early college English (Heimbach, A., June 2017).
  4. Main idea question. ACT English posits main idea questions like “What is the purpose of this passage?” that the SAT Writing & Language section lacks. The big-picture type of question, nevertheless, is present in both tests’ Reading section.

SAT Math vs. ACT Math

When it comes to Math, two differences between the college admission tests are visibly noticeable: the use of calculator and topic range.

Differences in Math tests:

  1. Calculator use. SAT Math delineates a line between a Calculator and No Calculator sections. The former being where a calculator is allowed during the test, where it is not in the latter. By default, ACT Math allows the use of calculator throughout the Math portion but this is not explicit in the requirement. Both tests do have a policy on allowed and prohibited calculators.
  2. Topic range. SAT Math is focused on Algebra with little room for additional topics like Geometry and Trigonometry. Compare this to ACT Math where the topics are broadly distributed across the different levels of Algebra, Geometry, Statistics and Trigonometry.
    On SAT, students are evaluated based on their knowledge bank of core Algebra topics, such as linear equations and systems. They will also be challenged with problem-solving and data analysis scenarios (College Board.org, n.d.).
    Meanwhile, ACT Math is divided into three categories of assessment: preparing for higher Math, integrating essentials skills, and modelling.
  3. Formulas. The SAT provides you with formulas that cannot be said of the ACT. It is recommended that you know your standard Math formulas prior to taking ACT Math.

SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading

The similarities between SAT and ACT Reading end with their usage of passages and references to literature, fiction, social sciences, and science, plus the fact that both tests pepper the section with main idea questions. At a glance, both Reading sections look alike—until one delves into the details. To prepare for this, it may be ideal to check out this guide to improving your college reading skills.

Differences in Reading tests:

  1. Passage length. SAT Reading generally uses longer passages compared to the ACT.
  2. Passage content. Where they deviate from each other, ACT Reading has humanities and its science is more comprehensive, revolving around the natural sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, geology, etc.). Meanwhile, SAT Reading includes U.S. founding documents and historical documents challenging students to be more aware of historical English nuances.
  3. Passage chronology. Questions in the ACT do not follow a chronological order unlike on SAT Reading where you are directed to the passage containing the answer. Finding the details on the ACT is more challenging and trickier.
  4. Graphical elements. Like in its Writing & Language section, SAT Reading accompanies some of its passages with charts and figures that it calls informational graphics. These elements add a layer of visual analytics that is unavailable on the ACT.
  5. Question types. SAT Reading features evidence support questions. These are question types that require answers to be referenced to the specific passage portion where the answer is derived. Moreover, the SAT questions use data reasoning and technique where the ACT does not. Both tests feature main idea, vocab-in-context, inference, and detail-oriented question types.

SAT vs. ACT Science

Many are asking if is there science on the SAT. The answer to this "does SAT have science" question is no. And this is the most obvious difference between SAT vs ACT. But it does not mean it leaves the subject out in the cold, as you will see below.

Differences in Science tests:

  1. Structure. The SAT tries to incorporate scientific topics into the other sections. For instance, science themes are to be found in chart or graphic analysis and reading passages. Contrast this with the ACT, which dedicates a whole section on science in its standard test. Expectedly, the latter has more comprehensive questions on matters specific to the natural sciences (e.g., chemistry, physics, biology, and geology).
  2. Optional tests. The SAT offers an optional suite of assessments particular to science on top of the standard SAT. These tests, covering biology, chemistry, and physics, are recommended to students planning to take a science degree (Test Prep Tookit, n.d.). As mentioned, these tests are readily available in the standard ACT test.
  3. Experimental design. The ACT pays more attention to experimental design in science as a gauge to measure a student’s college readiness. On the SAT, experimental design is traditionally excluded, but in 2017, the College Board added a 20-minute, “unscored” section on experimental design that, observers believe, is meant to test out this topic on future SAT assessments (Safier, R., January 2017).

SAT Essay vs. ACT Essay

Both the ACT and SAT have an optional essay section that students can take to demonstrate their college readiness. The score in the essay though will not be taken into account in the student’s overall admissibility. Nevertheless, it does add another dimension to one’s skill level. The main difference between the SAT and ACT in this section is in the essay’s approach, as discussed in detail below:

Differences in Essay tests:

  1. Approach. The essay prompt on the ACT requires one to frame an argument and reinforce it with facts. Whereas on the SAT, the student is tasked to dissect an argument in detail. In short, your opinion matters on the ACT but not on the SAT.
  2. Style. Differing in the approach, both tests naturally differ in the writing style. ACT Essay will demand more persuasive skills in the writing, while expository techniques take center stage on the SAT Essay. In both cases, it may be good to learn more about some examples of metaphors for essays.
  3. Test metrics. SAT Essay evaluates reading, analysis, and writing skills. Meanwhile, ACT Essay focuses on ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use.

Source: Business Insider (2018)


Other Differences between the SAT and the ACT

SAT Scoring vs. ACT Scoring

The SAT and the ACT use a similar scoring approach but with different constructs. Both determine a composite score (the overall score) from the individual scores the student merited in each section.

On the ACT, composite scoring is split among four sections and then averaged: English, mathematics, reading, and science. On the other hand, the SAT bases the composite score between two sections: reading/writing and math. Essay scoring is treated separately in both tests.

The highest composite score on the ACT is 36, which averages the scale scores per section that individually cap at 36, too. While on the SAT, composite scoring tops at 800 per section or 1600 in total.

SAT Timing vs. ACT Timing

The SAT allows you a longer time to answer the questions across subjects except in Writing and Language (English in the ACT). Not just that, the SAT has fewer questions except in Reading, which further extends the time limit per section.

On average, you have 50 seconds per question in the ACT compared with 1 minute and 10 seconds in the SAT (act.org, collegeboard.org, n.d.). If a 20-second time difference matters to you, then timing may play a role in your decision to prefer SAT over the ACT. Likewise, with the optional essay, the SAT allows 10 minutes more than the ACT. The time margin may not appear significant, but taken as a whole, both tests clock in at three hours apiece without the writing part but with Science crammed in the ACT. The difficulty of questions aside, you have more items to answer with less time in the ACT.

Time Allowance per Question

"body of an essay"The structure of an essay is compared to that of human anatomy, where the body is the main part.
"go belly up"This metaphor is in reference to the act of a fish turning belly up and floating to the surface of water when it dies.
"time is running out"The metaphor originally referred to the sand in an hourglass running from the top bulb to the bottom.
"can't hold a candle"The original context of this metaphor involved apprentices tasked to hold candles while their masters worked. Apprentices who are not deemed worthy to hold candles for their masters are clearly not in the same league.

SAT Cost vs. ACT Cost

As of the school year 2019-2020, the ACT costs $5.50 more than the SAT for the full test without the essay portion. The difference is the same inclusive of the essay. Here are the details:

Average Annual Cost of College Education in the US for A.Y. 2019-2020

Type of institutionTuition + FeesRoom + BoardAverage Total cost
Public 2-year in-state institution$3,730$8,990$12,720
Public 4-year in-state institution$10,440$11,510 $21,950
Public 4-year out-of -state institution$26,820$11,510 $38,330
Private nonprofit 4-year institution$36,880$12,990$49,879


The differences between the ACT and the SAT in mind beg the question—is it recommended to take both tests? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because taking both tests allows the student to show more competency information to the admission office, especially for higher scores. Taking both tests also gives the student more options to choose from the top 100 student scholarships or grants that require one type of test over the other.

On the other hand, and critically, both tests will cut into one’s study time, spreading it thinner as opposed to focusing on one test alone. Some may say it is like sitting in between two chairs resulting in a less stable situation. But the decision is best left to the student who should weigh the pros and cons of both strategies. An alternative to picking between SAT vs ACT may be to take both the preparatory tests—PSAT and PreACT—and decide which test plays to one’s strengths.



  • ACT (2019, August 5). ACT Calculator Policy. Iowa City, IA: Act.org.
  • College Board (2019, May). How much do the SAT and SAT subject tests cost? New York, NY: CollegeBoard.org.
  • Fracchia, K. (2016, November). ACT vs SAT: Ultimate guide to choosing the right test. StudyUSA.com.
  • Heimbach, A. (2017, June). SAT / ACT prep online guides and tips. PrepScholar.
  • Moody, J. (2020, June). ACT vs. SAT: How to decide which test to take. USNews.com.
  • Montgomery, C. (December, 2018). The 31 critical ACT math formulas you MUST know. PrepScholar.
  • Pittman, O. (2020, June). Do colleges prefer ACT or SAT? Which is more popular? CollegeRaptor.
  • Safier, R. (2017, January). What is the SAT experimental section? PrepScholar.
  • Test Prep Toolkit (n.d.). SAT science test, topics & subjects content. TestPrepToolkit.com.
  • Saget, B. (2013). Where the SAT and ACT dominate. New York Times.
  • The Princeton Review Staff (n.d.). 5 reasons to take both the SAT and ACT. PrincetonReview.

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