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Academic Compatibility: A Breakdown of the SAT and ACT to Help You Choose a Test

Looking for a straightforward breakdown of the SAT and ACT sections to make it easier to choose which test is best for you? We've got you covered!

Please note that these comparisons are subject to change with the upcoming digital SAT format updates.  

Even with the recent evolution of test-optional college admission, both the SAT and ACT are great ways to showcase your college readiness. A high SAT or ACT score can help show colleges that you’re ahead of your peers. There are some distinct differences between the SAT and ACT. Both tests consist of two English and Language sections, but after that, they differ greatly. Here’s what you should know about all the major sections of these two exams to help you choose which one to take.

English and Language sections

The two English and Writing sections of the SAT and ACT are similar, with both sections testing reading comprehension in one section and grammar in the other.

Reading comparison

The Reading section of the SAT really puts your comprehensive skills to the test, whereas the ACT’s Reading section is much shorter and quicker paced.

  • SAT section: 52 questions
  • Time for completion: 65 minutes
  • ACT section: 40 questions
  • Time for completion: 35 minutes

Writing comparison

The SAT similarly inverts length with a shorter Writing section to balance out its longer Reading section. On the other hand, the Writing section of the ACT has significantly more questions than it does for Reading.

  • SAT section: 44 questions
  • Time for completion: 35 minutes
  • ACT section: 75 questions
  • Time for completion: 45 minutes

Related: 5 Key Differences Between the SAT and ACT

The Math sections

As mentioned above, the SAT has two Math sections, whereas the ACT just has one—we’ll talk about its extra section soon. Both SAT Math sections can be mostly completed without any higher-level math knowledge (i.e., calculus, statistics, etc.), but it may help to know basic math concepts in each of these subjects for both tests.

  • SAT section: 20 questions (no calculator); 38 questions (with calculator)
  • Time for completion: 25 minutes; 55 minutes
  • ACT section: 60 questions (with calculator)
  • Time for completion: 60 minutes

(This portion of the SAT exam is due for big changes with the digital update.)

The ACT STEM section

One section the ACT has that the SAT doesn’t is the Science section. It consists of a variety of scientific fields, including but not limited to biology, chemistry, and physics. There are around six to seven passages with five to eight questions pertaining to each. Each passage (sometimes paired passages) will go over a specific scientific concept, and the questions will ask for an analysis of the passage(s). Ideally, the broader your base of scientific knowledge, the better equipped you’ll be for this section.

  • ACT section: 40 questions
  • Time for completion: 35 minutes

3 ways to determine test compatibility

The SAT and ACT each hold their own advantages and disadvantages, so there’s no “best” test—rather, it’s about what fits better for you. The best thing you could do is take practice tests to see which one you prefer. High school students are limited on time and usually only sit for the SAT or ACT—rarely both—so you’ll have to analyze the exams against three things: your personality, your colleges of interest, and your prospective major.

Most colleges take both exam scores, but some will have a preference to one of the two tests. Be sure to do some research and see if you can determine which will look better to the schools you’re applying to. It also makes more sense to take a certain test if it fits your major better. For example, if you’re going into a math-heavy major, it would be smarter to take the SAT as it’s 50% math. On the other hand, if you’re going into a more science-based major, it would make sense to take the ACT since it actually tests for science. Finally, you should assess your own personality when picking between the two tests. If you’re a fast test taker who really doesn’t want to spend time thinking for long periods on questions or triple-checking your work, the ACT will be better for you. If you think you can’t do math without a calculator, the ACT will also be better for you. Based on the layout of the test and the way you learn best, you can pretty accurately determine which test you’ll do best on.

Related: The Big Choice: The SAT vs. the ACT and Test-Optional Schools

Recent test-optional policies have certainly changed the game of higher education, but the SAT and ACT can still put you ahead of your peers when your college applications are being reviewed. Take a hard look at these distinct differences between the exams, take some practice tests, then put your all into studying for great scores.

Once you figure out which test is right for you, use our handy SAT and ACT Date Wheel to find a test date that fits into your busy student schedule.

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About Justin Mathew

Justin Mathew is an academically successful student at Shadow Creek High School in Texas. He's the president of the Mu Alpha Theta and Chess club chapters as an avid chess player with a Class B rating. Justin also enjoys basketball, NFL statistics, and playing the piano. At the age of seven, he was featured as a kid inventor and presented the No Sweat-SweatShirt on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. After high school, he plans to pursue a career in the medical field. 


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