The Lesser of Two Evils: Choosing Between the SAT and the ACT

The ACT and the SAT

The ACT and SAT are both standardized tests that are used for college admissions. Students should be aware that they have a choice in which standardized test they choose to take. As of 2015, the SAT seems to be the more popular choice on the east and west coasts, and the ACT is more popular throughout the rest of the country (with a few exceptions). However, students taking the SAT in 2016 will be encountering a radically redesigned exam, which will bring the test closer to the ACT in a few crucial ways (more on that later). Ultimately, every student should realize that the final decision is entirely up to them. This article provides important information about the differences between the two tests so that you can make a more well-informed choice.

Test Length and Structure 

The ACT consists of 5 sections. Only 4 of these sections must be completed. The fifth section – writing – is optional. For the required sections, there is a 45 minute English section, a 60 minute math section, a 35 minute reading section, and a 35 minute science section. You are given 30 minutes for the optional writing section. This gives a total required testing time of 45 + 60 + 35 + 35 = 175 minutes, or 2 hours and 55 minutes. With the optional writing section, the total testing time increases to 3 hours and 25 minutes.

The SAT is a longer test than the ACT. It consists of 10 sections, all required. There is one 25 minute essay, one 25 minute writing section, one 10 minute writing section, two 25 minute reading sections, one 20 minute reading section, two 25 minute math sections, one 20 minute math section, and one 25 minute experimental section which may be reading or math. This gives a total testing time of 7(25) + 2(20) + 10 = 225 minutes, or 3 hours and 45 minutes. If we add in the three 5 minute breaks, we get a total time of 4 hours from the beginning to the end of the test.

Note that on the SAT, the essay is given at the beginning of the test, it must be completed, and it is factored into the final score. On the ACT the essay is given at the end of the test, it is optional, and it is NOT factored into the final score.


The ACT is graded out of 36 points. The overall score is the average of the scores on each of the 4 required sections. Each of these is also graded out of 36 points.

The SAT is graded out of 2400 points. The overall score is the sum of the scores for reading, writing and math each consisting of a total of 800 points.

Conversion charts are easy to find for comparing ACT and SAT scores. For example, take a look here: ACT/SAT Conversion Chart


The ACT requires a faster pace than the SAT to get through each section. Let’s look at math as an example, and assume that a student is pacing themselves to answer every single math question. The student has an average of 1 minute to complete each math question on the ACT, compared to an average of 1 minute and 15 seconds per question on the multiple choice math sections on the SAT.

The SAT's questions become increasingly difficult throughout a section, while ACT sprinkles difficult questions into the exam at random. Additionally, some students may find it counterproductive to attempt every question on a standardized test, but this kind of advice lies outside the scope of this article.

Science Section 

The ACT has a science section and the SAT does not. The science section is really more about reading comprehension and interpreting data found in charts, figures and tables. Very little knowledge of science is actually required (although it could be argued that students with a stronger science background are at an advantage because they may be more comfortable interpreting information in this way). For students looking to show their aptitude in subjects not covered on the SAT, such as science, consider taking an SAT II. These are shorter, subject specific tests offered in fields such as chemistry, foreign languages, and global history. If you're serious about science, but want to take the SAT, consider this option.

Free Response Questions

Unlike the ACT, one of the math sections on the SAT has 10 free response questions, also known as “grid-ins.” In these questions the student must give a numerical answer without having any choices to select from.

Guessing Penalty

The SAT penalizes students for guessing multiple choice questions incorrectly. One quarter of a point is deducted from the student’s raw score for each wrong answer. The final raw score is then rounded to the nearest integer before it is converted to a scaled score. Only multiple choice questions have a guessing penalty; there is no penalty for free response questions. However, in 2016, the SAT will no longer include guessing penalties, and multiple choice questions will have only four possible answers. So if you're a sophomore preparing for an exam in the spring of your junior year, this information is worth weighing when you decide which test to take.

Difficulty Versus Trickiness in Math

The ACT tests a few math topics that are more advanced than those found on the SAT, but SAT questions tend to be intentionally tricky. It is often much easier to understand ACT questions upon a first reading, whereas SAT questions tend to seem more confusing at first. The SAT is known for including trap answers that match frequent student errors.

ACT problems tend to be more straightforward, and may be easier for students with stronger algebra skills. On the SAT, algebra and messy computations can usually be avoided by outside the box thinking and estimation strategies.

Mathematics Covered 

The ACT covers a few more advanced math topics that never appear on the SAT.

  • Basic Trigonometry
  • Laws of Sines and Cosines
  • Logarithms

In addition, the ACT places a slightly higher emphasis on arithmetic and geometric sequences, complex numbers, rational functions, and basic algebra skills.

The Takeaway

The best way to decide which test you should focus on is to take a practice test for both the ACT and the SAT. Book&Table strongly recommends using official practice tests from the test-makers themselves, preferably an old actual exam from each. Use a score comparison chart to compare your results, and you will see firsthand where your strengths lie.

Once you decide which test you will focus on, make sure you take enough time to prepare. We recommend preparing for 10 to 20 minutes of practice per day over a period of 3 to 4 months. And of course, working with a tutor will help any student more than private study.

Know a student struggling with the SAT or ACT? Looking for a tutor to help you move the needle on your score? Request a tutor with Book&Table today.

Happy Learning,