• Robin Glembotzky

SAT or ACT? How to choose.

The school year has started, here in CO. And it will slowly start, in different parts of the United States, over the next 3 weeks. One of the, many, decisions high school juniors and seniors face is whether to go to college or not. And if they go the college route, they are faced with “the BIG decision”.

So, how do determine which to take? Both test the standard, “reading, writing and arithmetic” idea. When you first look, both seem very similar. After all they are both standardized tests. In fact, both the SAT and ACT offer the essay section as optional, which doesn’t count towards your final score. Reading comprehension is tested on both exams, as well as problem solving. Crucial skills to succeed in college. Remember, this is the exam that college admissions look at to determine if a student is cut out for college. Since all U.S. colleges and universities accept scores for either, in that way, there is no advantage of one over the other. However, there are differences, within each exam that will help you figure out which one to focus on. Deciding which one to choose, often, comes down to your strengths. We’ll look at how those play into choosing your exam.

First, let’s look at the sections for each exam.


English Writing and Language

Reading Reading

Math Math-no calculator

Science Math-calculator

And, of course, both have an optional Essay section, though the ACT calls that section, “Writing”. Ok, so these are the areas of the exam. Let’s compare.

Total Time for Exam.

The first difference we’re looking at is time. The ACT allows 2 hours 55 mins (without the Writing portion) to complete the exam. The SAT allows 3 hours. While you may not think that 5 minutes can make a difference, lets take a closer look at how it can change things.

Time per section

This is one of the biggest differences between the exams. And it is where many folks start to lean toward a particular exam.

Section ACT SAT

Reading 40 Questions - 35 mins 52 questions - 65 mins

53 seconds/question 75 sec/question

English 75 questions - 45 mins 44 questions – 35 mins

(Writing/Language on SAT) 36 sec/question 48 sec/question

Math (no calculator) N/A 20 questions – 25 mins

75 sec/question

Math (calculator) 60 questions – 60 mins 38 questions – 55 mins

60 secs/question 87 sec/question

Science 40 questions – 35 mins N/A

53 sec/question

Total 215 questions 154 questions

Looking at this, the biggest thing that should jump out at you, is that number 215. That is a lot of questions! And remember that extra 5 minutes?? It’s on the SAT, NOT the ACT. Yes, the ACT is known for having more questions in less time. BUT before you run out and sign up for the SAT, read on.


The ACT has a “science” section, and the SAT doesn’t seem to have one, correct? Well, not exactly. The way the SAT includes Science is in the reading section. You’ll come across a passage that discusses science, such as a description of how DNA is constructed. And there will be a graphic included in the passage. On the SAT, the questions deal with understanding scientific concepts and interpreting graphs. On the ACT, it’s the science you expect. There will be questions on interpreting experimental results and comparing variables within experiments. So, if you’re a big Science geek, you’ll be happy.


This is the part where differences start to matter a bit more. While both exams have a math section, they are weighted differently. The ACT math score counts for ¼ of your total exam score. On the SAT, it is ½! So, let’s look at the math sections a little closer.

ACT math

While Algebra is the King of both exams, the ACT adds a few extra concepts, in addition to increasing the emphasis on certain topics. Both exams ask questions in geometry, however, the ACT math sections contain around 40% geometry. That’s 4x’s the amount found on the SAT. Trig accounts for 7% of the ACT, approximately 2% more than the SAT. You will also find questions on matrices, trig functions and logs. And all of the ACT answers are multiple choice answers. You will not have a fill in section. While there are no diagrams of math formulas, you do get to use your calculator for the entire math section.

SAT math

Again, we’re looking at the bulk of the math section being Algebra. The SAT does provide you with various geometry diagrams. This helps you from memorizing formulas. However, you will need to be able to manipulate those formulas. Less, geometry (10% vs 40%), less trig, (5% vs 7%), no logs or matrices, BUT you do have an entire section without use of your calculator. And this section does have grid-in answers. You will not be able to just pick one of the multiple-choice answers. That accounts for 13% of the SAT math.


While it would seem reading is reading, there is a slight difference. On the SAT, the questions are in chronological order, they follow the order of the passage. This is not true of the ACT, where you may have one of the final questions asking about the beginning of the passage. Some people find this disorienting.

Essay (optional)

While it’s listed as optional, and many schools do not require it, please check the requirements at your school. The difference, between the exams is the content you will be writing about. On the SAT, you are given a passage, and required to analyze it. You will look at the author’s argument and dissect that. It will not be your opinion. On the ACT, you will read a short passage and then present YOUR opinion regarding the different perspectives on the issue in the passage. If you are good at in depth analysis of a passage, then the SAT essay will be your best option. On the other hand, if your strength is comparing different perspectives, then the ACT might better suit you.

Take away

So, as I said at the beginning, you need to look at your strengths. If the language arts are you strength, and you feel you don’t do so well, in math, look at the ACT. Just keep in mind the time constraints. If you feel solid in math and “ok” in language arts, look at the SAT. For this exam, keep in mind how much more weight the math section will have on your final score. If you’re still not sure, take a practice exam for each one. Yes, it will take time, but it will help ease your mind when you need to choose the real thing. Good luck!

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