How do the SAT and ACT Compare?

By Anathea Simpkins

Test Prep

What are the differences between the SAT and ACT? What are the similarities? Which test should you take? These are the questions that all teens (and their parents) ask as they begin the college entrance exam phase of the college admissions journey. With the launch of the redesigned SAT in March of 2016, the two tests now share many more similarities than they have in the past. Let’s take a look at some commonly asked questions to help guide the important decision of which test to take and submit to colleges and universities.


First things first, most every college or university in the United States accepts either test. However, there may be differences in terms of whether a college requires the SAT Essay or ACT Writing, both of which are optional. When in doubt, always check a college’s requirements to be sure.


The SAT includes the five sections below. All but the optional Essay are multiple-choice, with some gridded-response items on the Math sections:

  • Evidence-Based Reading
  • Writing
  • Math (no calculator)
  • Math (calculator allowed)
  • Optional Essay

The ACT includes the five sections below. All but the optional Writing Test are multiple-choice, with some gridded-response items on the Math section:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Optional Writing Test


Basically, the Evidence-Based Reading section on the SAT is very similar to the ACT Reading section. Both sub-tests require students to read a series of passages, both non-fiction and fiction, and then answer a series of questions following each passage to show basic comprehension, draw inferences or conclusions, make comparisons, or use context clues to decode vocabulary.

The Writing section of the SAT is very similar to the English section of the ACT. Both test sections require students to read an article or essay, which have some grammatical and rhetorical errors, and then answer questions that address how best to strengthen the structure, conventions, and argument used in the passage.

The Math sections on both the SAT and ACT require students to answer questions that assess skills through Trigonometry. The main difference is that the SAT has a short Math section on which calculators are not allowed. This section assesses a student’s math fluency and automaticity.

The ACT Science section has no counterpart on the SAT. However, it is important to note that the ACT Science requires a student to apply analysis and reading comprehension skills to science-based passages and studies. The SAT includes science-based passages on both the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections, which require students to apply many of the same skills as the ACT Science.

Finally, while the SAT Essay and ACT Writing Test are both optional, the prompts and requirements have some differences.

The SAT Essay provides 50 minutes to read an article, government document, or published essay of approximately 650 words and then write an essay in which the student demonstrates that that he/she has read the passage carefully, present a clear and logical analysis, and use language precisely.

The ACT Writing Test provides 40 minutes to write a unified, coherent essay about a topic that may be a subject of debate. The student is required to read three different points of view about the topic, clearly state his/her own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between his/her perspective and at least one other perspective. The student should develop and support ideas with reasoning and examples, organize ideas clearly and logically, and communicate ideas using standard written English.


The SAT includes a total score of 400 to 1600, plus a 2 to 8 score for each of the three writing traits (Reading, Analysis, and Writing) evaluated on the Essay. Scores on the SAT are based on total number of correct answers, with no penalty for wrong answers. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores are combined to a scale ranging from 200 to 800 and, in turn, the two Math sections are also converted to 200 to 800. These scores are then combined to form the overall Composite score. The optional Essay in no way affects the Composite score.

The ACT includes four subject scores (English, Math, Reading, Science) on the 1 to 36 scale, which are then averaged to form the overall Composite. The Writing Test is scored on the 2 to 12 score for four writing domains (ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use and conventions), and then these scores are averaged to form an overall Writing Test score on the 2 to 12 scale. The Writing Test score in no way affects the Composite.


Both tests offer “Score Choice,” or the option for student’s to choose which test date they would like to submit for their applications. Note that individual sub-test scores from different dates cannot be submitted.


The answer to this question really depends on you and your comfort level with each of the tests. One thing to keep in mind is that the SAT includes the no-calculator section, while ACT permits the use of the calculator on the entire Math section. This might make a student feel more comfortable and confident knowing that it can be used. The College Board openly admits that SAT includes reading passages, documents, or articles that the student may have already encountered in school because the intention of the assessment is to showcase a student’s best work. So, in that way, the student may have a head-start. However, if a student is taking the Essay or Writing Test, the SAT Essay requires more reading, which may take more time to analyze, though 10 more minutes than the ACT Writing are provided.

We at Sylvan Learning suggest that you take a diagnostic test for each test and see how well you do on either, where you got tripped up, and which one you feel more confident and comfortable with. Visit your local Sylvan Learning to check out all our college prep resources and schedule a diagnostic test today!