The New SAT vs. ACT: What’s the Difference?

For many years, the ACT had been seen as the “fairer” test when it came to the battle between the SAT and ACT. The SAT penalized students for guessing and used question traps to increase the test’s difficulty. In comparison, the ACT’s questions were more straightforward and students weren’t docked points for wrong answers.

With the College Board’s redesign of the SAT, the test is now much closer to the ACT. The test-makers removed the penalty for wrong answers and revised the content of the questions (no more abstruse vocabulary!) to better align it with your high school curriculum. However, the ACT and SAT are still very different, and though scores from the first release of the redesigned SAT won’t be released until May, students will likely continue to find that they’re better suited for one test rather than the other.

To help you understand which test may suit you best, let’s look at the structure and content differences between the ACT and SAT.


ACT and SAT structure and scoring

The structure and length of the tests are similar. Each lasts nearly four hours when you include the ACT’s optional writing test and the SAT’s optional essay. However, the difference in the length of time you have to answer each question is staggering. You’ll have to answer a total of 215 questions on the ACT compared to 154 questions on the SAT. This means that on some ACT sections, you’ll have less than a minute to spend on each question. Though the SAT gives you more time per question, the questions are considered to be more difficult. You’ll need to decide what you are more comfortable with: answering questions under tougher time constraints or having more time to answer more difficult questions.


Test Structure and Scoring ACT SAT
Length 3 hours and 35 minutes (including optional writing section) 3 hours and 50 minutes (including optional essay)
Sections English, Reading, Math, and Science plus optional essay or writing test Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math (calculator and no-calculator) plus optional essay
Total number of questions 215 154
Scoring 1 – 36 (an average of the 4 section scores not including the optional essay) 400 – 1600 (the sum of the Evidence-based Reading and Writing section and the Math section)


ACT and SAT content

When it comes to what each exam tests, there’s a fair amount of overlap. Both exams attempt to measure your reading comprehension abilities as well as your grasp of algebra and arithmetic and English grammar. However, the ACT features an entire section that’s absent in the SAT: science. Despite its name, this section tests the critical thinking skills required in science rather than pure scientific knowledge. Similar to the ACT’s Reading section, science questions are passage-based, and questions will require you to accurately interpret the findings, viewpoints, or data the passages express.

The coverage of content also differs between tests. For example, you’re much more likely to come across geometry and trigonometry questions on the ACT than on the SAT. Both exams test these subjects, but the ACT tests them more heavily. Along with the absence of the science section, this is the most significant difference in content between the redesigned SAT and the ACT.

The differences between the other sections are subtler. For example, SAT Reading questions often draw your attention to specific sections of the passage to analyze or find evidence for the author’s point of view. ACT Reading questions focus more on your overall understanding of the passage. The redesigned SAT has adopted the same question format that the ACT uses in its Writing section, and it now tests similar grammatical conventions such as punctuation. However, on the SAT there’s more attention paid to writing style and how the author constructs arguments. Also, you’ll see charts and graphs in the passages, which you won’t see on the ACT’s Writing questions.


Deciding which test to take

If you’re afraid of running out of time or if you struggle with pacing, the new SAT may be a better fit with the increased time per question you’ll have. The SAT will also appeal more to you if geometry and trigonometry are your least favorite math subjects. However, SAT questions are generally more intricate than ACT questions (for example, check the SAT’s new paired reading questions), and you may find you perform better on the ACT, despite the faster pace.

The best way to gauge your fit for either test is to try both of them. Or instead of signing up for each test, try a practice test or at least a few questions from both the SAT and ACT’s different sections to discover which you do better on. Don’t forget to take each test’s time restrictions into account!

If you’ve taken both the SAT and ACT, let our readers know which you’ve found easier for you in our comments below.