SAT vs. ACT: Which one is right for you?

The SAT and ACT  are two of the most popular standadized testing programs. While the SAT has had the larger presence in India, both are equally an instution of testing when it comes to undergraduate education in the United States. At Edbrand, we have seen scores differ widely with the same student as they take both the tests. The difference lies in the questions. To understand this better we’ll take you through both the tests and then dive into a comparative analysis. 


The newly designed SAT was introduced in 2016 with four sections and an optional essay. 

Section 1: Reading (52 questions spread over 5 passages. Time allotted: 65 minutes) 

Section 2: Wrting (44 multiple choice questions on grammar, spread over 4 passages. Time allotted: 35 minutes) 

Sections 3 & 4: Math ( In all 58 Q to be solved in 80 min. Calculator not permitted for Section 3 whereas section 4 permits the use of Graphing display calculator) 

Optional essay, a commentary to be written in 800 words long argumentative prompt. 


Leaving minor changes aside, the pr esent structure of ACT has been around since 1989. It has four sections: 

English (75 Q – 45 Min) 

Math (60Q – 60 min) - Graphing calculator permitted 

Reading (40 Q – 35 min) 

Science (40 Q – 35 Min ) - Calculator not permitted 

The ACT essay is easier to write than the one on SAT as you are permitted to use your own examples here. 

So what’s the difference

  1. The SAT is more a test of reasoning and logic and always attempts to size up your ability to improvise and act in a situation. The SAT syllabus is limited and an effective SAT prep can be put in place in as little as 30 hours, although that is not recommended. ACT , on the other hand , is a pure speed test and the questions here are generally on the easier side. The average time allowed per question on ACT (4 9 seconds), however, is 30% lower than that allowed on SAT (70 seconds). 
  2. The Grammar sections on the two tests are pretty much identical. Although there are more rhetorical questions on SAT, you get more time to answer t hem as compared to the ACT. Students from any background can answer these , given appropriate inputs and adequate practice. 
  3. The math sections on the two tests differ vastly in their scope and required approach and prep. SAT has a tiny syllabus and students irrespective of their math options in junior and senior years will be comfortable here given some additional inputs in areas like parabola and statistics. The questions can tend to be tricky though. Also, most of the SAT math questions are lengthy in wordi ng and inadvertently end up testing your reading speed as well. Time will not be a challenge on any of these tests for the math sections unless the student has a weak math foundation from the middle years of schooling. ACT math is highly curriculum based a nd students who do not hav e math as a subject in their high school will struggle here. High school math students will find ACT math simple as the questions are usually direct and superficial, merely testing one for the concept involved and not its applicat ion. That said, these students will take more time as the syllabus is large and loosely defined. Having prepared for ACT math with usually give the students an edge in their SAT math level 2 prep as there is almost a 50% overlap in the syllabus . 
  4. The reading sections of the two tests are poles apart. My favorite line here is “SAT tests you for reading between the lines. On the ACT, you just have to read the lines; there are too many of them though ” . SAT reading is highly inferential requiring the student to u nderstand the passage in great depth and align herself with the thoughts of the author. ACT reading is direct and answers to all the questions can be found directly i n the passage. The only challenge here is attempting four long passages and 40 questions in a minuscule 35 minutes. 
  5. ACT has a science section, which is not there on SAT. This section, in my opinion, should have been called Data Comprehension as it does not really test you on scien tific principles. Having all three sciences in freshman and sopho more years of high schools should suffice. Even if you do not have sciences in junior and senior high school years, you will usually do well here provided you know the technique. Students who have not studied Biology and Chemistry in Grade 9 or 10 ( Year 10 or 11 for some curriculums ) will struggle here. 

Recent Trends

ACT has been more or less a stable test over the last ten years and the actual tests have shown a gradual increase in difficulty level in the math and English sections and a gradual decrease in difficulty in reading and science sections. The October and December administrations, however, had a substantially lengthier reading. 

The redesigned SAT was introduced in March 2016 and till the January 2017 administration, it was more or less in line wit h the mock tests. From the May 2017 administration, the reading section has witnessed an increased level of difficulty. Another issue with SAT is the fact that only 8 official tests are available for practice. The ones published by private publishers like Kaplan and Barron’s are nowhere near the real test in terms of the level of difficulty or scope. For ACT, as many as 35 real tests are easily available for practice.

How do you choose? 

If you find the above description to be too much of a jargon to comprehend, I can recommend three basic questions that you should ask to make this decision. 

  1. Have you opted for math at a standard of higher level in junior and senior years (this applies for IB students. ISC and CBSE students are doing this already)? 
  2. Have you studied Physics, Chemistry, and Biology in class 9 & 10 
  3. Were you able to attempt at least 34 questions on an ACT reading diagnostic and got at least 28 of these correct? 

If the answers to all three questions are yes, go for the ACT. If the answer to even one of these is no, opt for the SAT. Please refrain from conducting a full length diagnostic for both tests to decide. Students rarely have the stamina to last through a three - hour standardized test and this will rarely provide an accurate picture.