December 3



By NeuroHealth Arlington Heights

December 3, 2020

The SAT and ACT are both informative tests used to evaluate high school students’ knowledge as they’re applying for college admission and scholarships. You can take either of these tests or both as you prepare to further your education. Understanding the differences will help you make the best choice and prepare well for the test or tests that you plan to take.

The Purpose of the Tests

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The SAT and ACT are academic assessments given to high school juniors and seniors. Colleges and universities evaluate students’ test scores as part of the admissions process. Merit-based scholarships often consider a student’s ACT or SAT scores as well.

All colleges and universities in the United States accept both SAT and ACT scores, so your choice of test won’t directly prevent you from getting into a particular school. However, some schools prefer one test over another or strongly encourage their applicants to take both tests. You can usually find details about a particular school’s preferences on its website.

SAT vs ACT Test Structure

The content and structure of the ACT and SAT differ in several ways. Take a closer look at the content and timing for each test for a better understanding of what awaits you with these options.

SAT Sections

Reading 65 minutes 52 questions
Writing and Language 35 minutes 44 questions
Math Without Calculator 25 minutes 20 questions
Math With Calculator 55 minutes 38 questions
Optional Essay 50 minutes 1 essay

ACT Sections

English 45 minutes 75 questions
Math 60 minutes 60 questions
Reading 35 minutes 40 questions
Science 35 minutes 40 questions
Optional Essay 40 minutes 1 essay


Examining this schedule, you’ll see that the SAT provides more time per question throughout the exam. If you’re concerned about having enough time to complete the test thoroughly, the SAT is the better option. However, you should also consider the content of each test.

The ACT has an entire section on science, which the SAT omits. If you’re strong in science, this gives you a powerful tool for pulling up your score. Though the SAT doesn’t include a section dedicated to science, it does incorporate some scientific concepts in other sections, providing data and charts to test your knowledge in a similar way, so you don’t want to skip over studying in this area entirely if you’re headed for the SAT.

If you enjoy reading, the SAT has five passages while the ACT has four. The reading portion of the SAT is also significantly longer.

Math on the SAT vs ACT

There are several differences in the math sections on the SAT and ACT. On the SAT, you’ll find one math section that does allow the use of a calculator and another that does not. The ACT allows the use of a calculator on all math questions. Both tests feature arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry, and trigonometry. The SAT also covers data analysis while the ACT covers probability and statistics.

While having a calculator may boost your confidence, it’s worth noting that all questions on both tests are solvable without a calculator. The questions you must solve without a calculator on the SAT are more reasoning-based to assess your critical thinking ability more than your detailed knowledge of math concepts.

Though the SAT has a small no-calculator section, it does provide you with math formulas that are lacking in the ACT. On the SAT, you’ll find a diagram of 12 geometry formulas and a list of three geometry laws. Interestingly, geometry counts for just 10% of the math questions on the SAT while it makes up 30 to 45% of the math questions on the ACT. If you’re strong in geometry and have memorized the concepts, the ACT may offer a better fit.

Most of the math questions on these tests are multiple-choice, but the ACT gives you five possible answers while the SAT only provides four. If you’re guessing at the answer, the SAT gives you a higher chance of getting it right on multiple-choice problems. This is balanced somewhat by the fact that the SAT also has grid-ins where you must write in your answer. There are five grid-ins on the no-calculator portion of the test and eight grid-ins on the calculator section.

Test Scoring

The ACT and SAT are scored very differently, which can make it tricky to compare your scores across the two tests.

SAT Scoring

The SAT assigns a score between 200 and 800 to the math section and the combined reading and writing sections. Your total score is then the sum of these two numbers, falling somewhere between 400 and 1600.

With this formula, math accounts for a full half of your score, even though the test as a whole dedicates less time and fewer questions to math than to reading and writing.

The optional essay receives three numerical grades on separate scales, each of which is between 1 and 8. Your essay score doesn’t count toward your total.

ACT Scoring

The ACT assigns a score between 1 and 36 to each of the four sections. Your final score is an average of these numbers, rather than a sum as with the SAT.

With this formula, math accounts for just a quarter of your score, rather than half. It shares equal weight with English, reading, and science. If you view reading and English as similar subjects, you’ll see that the two combined account for half of your ACT score.

The optional essay for the ACT receives a single score between 2 and 12. As with the SAT, this does not count toward your final score and is considered separately by schools that look at the essay portion.

While the SAT and ACT may seem intimidating, there are many tools, resources, and sample tests that will help you prepare. If you have a documented learning disability, you can also qualify for extra time and other accommodations. Our team at NeuroHealth can help evaluate you for these disabilities and provide assistance with the process of securing any accommodations that you might need. We’re dedicated to supporting your success.

NeuroHealth Arlington Heights

About the author

For over 20 years, NeuroHealth Arlington Heights has been offering neuropsychological and psychological assessments and treatments for people of all ages. These assessments and treatments address Behavioral, Emotional, & Social Issues, Neurocognitive Functions, and Neurodevelopmental Growth.