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Comparison: ACT vs. SAT

Should I take the ACT or the SAT? Not sure which one is better?

Before the new SAT, there were actually many differences between the two. For example, the SAT used to have a penalty for guessing. However, with the new SAT, that penalty is now gone, and the makers of the test re-formatted the SAT so that it resembles the ACT more.

Here’s a comparison of the two tests:

                                         ACT                                         SAT

Time without writing/essay

2 hours, 55 minutes

3 hours

Time with writing/essay

3 hours, 35 minutes

3 hours, 50 minutes

Number of  Required Sections


4 (3 actual sections with math divided into 2 sections)

Subject Material: English/Writing & Language

Yes, 45 minutes, 75 ?s

Yes, 35 minutes, 44 ?s

Subject Material: Reading

Yes, 35 minutes, 40 ?s

Yes, 65 minutes, 52 ?s

Subject Material: Math

Yes, 60 minutes, 60 ?s

Yes, 80 minutes, 58 ?s

Format of Math Questions

All multiple choice

45 multiple choice, 13 grid-in

Calculator allowed for Math

Yes, for all of math

Yes, for Math-Calculator section; No, for Math-No calculator section

Math Topics covered

Numbers, algebra, functions, geometry, prob/stat, rates/percents, area, volume, word problems, models

Numbers, algebra, functions, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, advanced math, word problems, models

Subject Material: Science

Yes, 35 minutes, 40 ?s


Optional (but recommended) Essay

Yes, 40 minutes

Yes, 50 minutes

Critical thinking and analysis



Score range



Penalty for guessing



There are a few minor differences, such as the SAT having 2 math sections with one section without calculator use and several math questions that are not multiple choice and require bubbling or “gridding” in the answer. The SAT math sections also include basic trigonometry while the ACT usually does not cover trig. Calculator use is permitted throughout the entire ACT math section while it is not on one of  the SAT math sections. Overall, the SAT takes a little bit more time than the ACT because there is usally more time given per question, and the optional Essay section gives 50 minutes to write rather than 40 minutes. The scoring also differs with a different point scale used.

The most notable difference is the inclusion of the science section on the ACT and the exclusion of the science section on the SAT. The sciences are definitely covered on the SAT Subject tests for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics though, so if you choose to take the SAT and not the ACT but still want to show colleges your aptitude for scientific reasoning and knowledge, you should definitely take the SAT Subject tests in the sciences. However, if you are weak with analyzing scientific data, you should probably take the SAT rather than the ACT. Yet, with practice, a few strategies, some studying, and logic, you can still do well on the Science section of the ACT, even if you tend to be weak in the sciences.

Because the two tests are mostly similar now, it really comes down to personal preference, what types of strategies work for you, and what kind of test-taker you are. If you really need help with deciding though, Princeton Review has a short quiz that you can take to determine which of the two tests would be better for you:

However, if you want to become a Finalist for the National Merit Scholarship, you MUST take the SAT!More info about that here:

Regardless of your decision to take the ACT or the SAT (or both, but really, only one is necessary), prepare well and do well!



James Han, Director


Columbia Academy

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