Home / Blog / The ACT vs. the SAT: An Updated Guide to Choosing the Right Test for You

The ACT vs. the SAT: An Updated Guide to Choosing the Right Test for You

For this week’s lesson, we’re going to update our “ACT vs. SAT” guide. Last year’s edition of this guide compared the ACT to the then newly-redesigned SAT. Since that time the “new” SAT has become simply the SAT and new official study guides have been released for both exams.

This guide is divided into two parts. The first compares each section of the ACT with its equivalent section on the SAT. (The sole exception is the ACT Science section, which has no SAT equivalent.) The second covers some additional factors to consider when choosing between the ACT and SAT.


ACT vs. SAT: Section by Section


ACT English vs. SAT Writing and Language

The new SAT Writing and Language section is strikingly similar to the ACT English section. In fact, the two sections are so similar that you could conceivably use official practice tests from one exam to study for the other. Both present a series of short passages with deliberate errors in grammar and rhetoric. Each question appears directly across from the related part of the passage. The ACT includes more questions per passage, while the SAT occasionally asks students to incorporate information from a simple chart, graph, or table. In other words, the differences between ACT English and SAT Writing are essentially irrelevant when considering which exam to take.


ACT Reading vs. SAT Reading

The ACT and SAT Reading sections ask students to answer a series of multiple choice questions related to several short passages. The wording of ACT Reading questions and answer choices ranges from simple to moderately complex. SAT Reading questions can vary greatly in both length and complexity. Some questions are even shorter than the shortest ACT Reading questions. However, other questions pair extremely long questions with equally long answer choices. In addition, SAT Reading includes questions where you must choose the set of lines that best supports your answer to the previous question. Finally, some passages feature charts, graphs, or tables that you must successfully interpret to answer one or more of the questions.


To compensate for these added tasks, the time limit of SAT Reading is more generous than that of ACT Reading. On both exams, correct answers must be directly supported by the passages. Neither Reading section requires students to draw on outside knowledge to correctly answer the questions.


ACT Math vs. SAT Math

ACT Math and SAT Math cover essentially the same mathematical concepts using similar types of questions. That having been said, the sections themselves have very different designs.


ACT Math lets students use a calculator at any point on the section. It is up to the student to judge whether answering a particular question will be faster with or without the aid of a calculator. ACT Math features only multiple choice questions and provides no formulas that students might need to successfully answer questions.


SAT Math is split into two sections: one where calculator use is permitted and one where it is not. The “Calculator” section features a handful of “student produced response” questions where you must bubble in the correct answer. Students generally have little difficulty finishing this section in time but often struggle to complete the “No Calculator” section before the clock runs out. Both SAT Math sections include a list of essential formulas.


ACT Science

Unique to the ACT, the Science exam requires students to answer a series of multiple choice questions based on information presented in passages, charts, graphs, and tables. Despite its name, the science section doesn’t require any advanced scientific knowledge. Instead, this section draws upon the skills used in lab classes: reading, reasoning, and data interpretation. If you’ve had substantial laboratory experience during high school, you already possess many of the skills necessary to do well on this section.


ACT Writing vs. SAT Essay

ACT Writing and the SAT Essay are both optional. However, the similarities end there. The SAT Essay is essentially a DBQ (document-based question). Students must read, analyze, and respond to a short article. While students are allowed to criticize how well an author makes the case for his or her position, they are not allowed to criticize the position itself.


The ACT Writing exam requires students to choose and support a position on a particular issue. However, a student must also analyze three “perspectives,” both on their own merits and in relation to the student’s own position. In other words, the SAT Essay taxes analytical skills, while ACT Writing draws on both analytical and argumentative skills.  


Additional Considerations


Amount and Quality of Official Practice Material

Before the redesign of the SAT, the ACT generally had the edge in both the quality and quantity of official practice material available to students. While the official SAT guide had 10 tests to the ACT’s 5, only the ACT guide provided answer explanations. Furthermore, ACT, Inc. would release a free “Preparing for the ACT” practice test in PDF form each year.


Since the redesign of the SAT, this situation has gradually reversed. The newest addition of the Official SAT study Guide contains 8 practice tests with full answer explanations. These tests are also available for free on the College Board’s website.  In addition, the College Board had partnered with Khan Academy to provide a free, customizable, online practice tool.


ACT, Inc., by contrast, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. The last two editions of the Official ACT Prep Guide include only 3 practice tests, and one of these tests is taken from an earlier edition. Because of the ACT’s fondness for gradual changes, the older “Preparing for the ACT” PDFs available online will become progressively more out of date with each passing year. This isn’t helped by the fact that the most recent “Preparing for the ACT” PDF contains the same practice test as last year’s PDF did. ACT, Inc. does provide an online study module, but it requires the purchase of the official guide to use and is not as well-executed as the SAT’s Khan Academy partnership.


Test Dates

The ACT and SAT offer a similar but not identical schedule of test dates throughout the academic year. Because of this, there will be times when the next ACT date will be further out than the next SAT date and vice-versa. If your practice test scores for the ACT and SAT are especially close, you might consider choosing the exam that works best with your schedule and gives you the maximum amount of time to prepare.