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When students are deciding whether to take the SAT or the ACT, there are a number of different factors to consider. The two tests are quite similar in many ways – especially in the Writing and Language sections – but they do have some major differences. The SAT has no Science section, for example, and the Math sections are very different. Which one to choose?

Overall, students generally find the SAT to be more conceptual and the ACT to be more intuitive and straightforward. The best way for students to find out which one is the best fit is to take practice tests of both the SAT and ACT, but it helps to do some research as well. Below is a section-by-section comparison of the two tests to help with the decision!

MathMore math-intensive overall
Includes 2 sections: one in which calculator use is permitted, and one in which calculator use is not permittedNon-calculator section: 25 minutes, 20 questionsCalculator section: 55 minutes, 38 questionsProvides a list of basic formulas as a reference for studentsQuestions tend to be more conceptual in nature, focus on applied math, and involve Statistics more frequently than the ACT. They also sometimes involve more steps than questions on the ACT.
Generally more intuitive for studentsOnly one math section, in which calculator use is permitted
60 questions, to be completed in 60 minutes 
Does not provide a list of formulasQuestions cover a slightly broader range of mathematical concepts than the SAT, and are slightly more weighted toward trigonometry and Pre-Calculus than the SAT (though these still only appear a few times per test). Questions tend to be more straightforward than those on the SAT.
Reading52 questions on 5 passages, to be completed in 65 minutes

Tests reading comprehensionPassages are similar to ACT’s, but can include excerpts from older texts with complex, less familiar vocabularyEach passage includes paired questions. A student must answer the first question and then identify supporting evidence for that answer on the second question. These types of questions are often time-consuming and intimidating, as they require students to refer back to and decipher many different lines of text. Requires students to analyze charts and graphs as well as text, much like the ACT’s Science section
40 questions on 4 passages, to be completed in 35 minutes. The ACT’s Reading section is usually harder to finish than the SAT’s because of the more limited time per questionTests reading comprehensionPassages are similar to SAT’s, but are generally more modern
No paired questions

Does not include charts or graphs
Writing / English44 questions in 35 minutes (45 seconds per question)Questions are very similar to ACT questions. Mostly tests students’ understanding of grammar and usageOccasionally requires students to analyze data on charts75 questions in 45 minutes (36 seconds per question)Questions are very similar to SAT questions. Mostly tests students’ understanding of grammar and usageNo charts or graphs
ScienceNo science section40 questions on 6 passages, to be completed in 35 minutes (52 seconds per question)Consists of answering questions on short descriptions of experiments accompanied by graphs and charts. Also includes one reading-based passage without charts or graphsRequires knowledge of some basic scientific principles, but mostly tests students’ understanding of experimental design and data analysis
EssayAsks students to analyze an argument in a speech or article and determine what makes that argument effective

Essay score does not affect composite score
Asks students to consider three different perspectives on a debatable issue and then write about their own stance as it aligns (or doesn’t) with the three perspectives
Essay score does not affect composite score
ScoringMath and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing are scored individually on a scale of 200-800 (The Reading and Writing sections are grouped together into the single Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score)Composite score is the combination of Math and Reading/Writing. It ranges from 400-1600No penalty for incorrect answersEnglish, Math, Reading, and Science are scored individually on a scale of 1-36

Composite score is the average of the above sections. It ranges from 1-36
No penalty for incorrect answers
Understanding Accommodations

If your student regularly uses accommodations at their school, or if you suspect that they might have a learning difference, it might be helpful for them to have accommodations when they take the ACT or SAT.

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One of the first questions I often get from families when we begin working together is about how to choose between the SAT and ACT.

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