This post is excerpted from Professor Dave’s Owner’s Manual for the ACT – Home Study Edition

Which Test is Better for Me, the ACT or the SAT?

This question is asked all the time, so let’s address it.

There are rumors that the ACT is easier. Equally, there are rumors that the SAT is easier. Neither rumor is true. The tests are just different. The best way to determine which test is best for you is to take a diagnostic exam for each.


Here are some notes about the two exams which may help you decide which is better for you.

  • Overall, the ACT and the SAT are pretty similar in gauging intelligence, aptitude, and ability. They are both teachable exams, which should not be the case, but it is what it is. It’s why you have this manual in your hands.
  • Test Length – The ACT has 215 questions plus the optional essay. The SAT has 140 questions plus the required essay. The actual testing time for the ACT with essay is 3 hours and 25 minutes while the SAT takes 3 hours and 45 minutes (total test time is longer for both because of breaks). Thus, the ACT allows slightly less time per question.
  • ACT Science – One of the big differences between the ACT and SAT is that the ACT has a science test that includes questions in areas such as biology, chemistry, physics and earth science. However, it is more geared towards chart reading and data interpretation than true science. In fact, the science test is really assessing your ability to read and understand graphs, scientific hypotheses, and research summaries. Students who do well with the SAT’s critical reading often do well on the ACT science test.
  • Grammar – The ACT concentrates heavily on punctuation and mechanics, while the SAT tests subject/verb agreement, pronoun usage, and other grammatical areas more. If you know your comma usage (you will if you read this manual!) you’ll do great on the English test on the ACT.
  • Trig – The ACT tests basic trigonometry, and other math topics higher in content than the SAT. However, it tends to test math in a more straightforward manner than the SAT does. Questions do not have the “tricky” flavor that many SAT math questions contain. If you know basic trig, quadratics, and imaginary numbers you’re all set for the ACT math. These topics are covered in depth in this manual
  • No penalty for wrong answers on the ACT. – Never leave an answer blank on the ACT. The SAT penalizes students ¼ point for wrong answers, the ACT does not. Some students find the penalty on the SAT stressful. If that’s you, the ACT can seem easier to attack. There is NO penalty for wrong answers. Never leave a blank on the ACT.
  • Essay Differences – The ACT essay is an opinion piece on a topic that will be easily addressed by today’s high school students. You have 30 minutes to write the ACT essay vs. 25 minutes on the SAT. You MUST include an address of the counter-argument to your position on the ACT, whereas the SAT asks you to use examples from literature, history, etc. for the essay. The ACT essay is more personal in nature. Remember, the ACT essay is considered “optional,” but since most colleges and universities require it, it’s not really optional.
  • Vocabulary – The ACT is much easier on the weaker vocabulary student than the SAT is. There is no direct testing of vocabulary (like sentence completion questions on the SAT) but some vocabulary skill is needed. The English section will test your knowledge of certain words, but not to the level of the SAT. Students with weaker vocabularies may benefit from this.
  • Test Structure Differences – Students taking the SAT will find that the questions get more difficult as they progress. The ACT has a more constant level of difficulty, although the math sections feature order of difficulty almost exactly the same as the SAT. The ACT math section is all multiple choice, whereas the SAT math section (1-18) has some questions that require written answers. Finally, the essay for the SAT comes first; the ACT optional essay is last.
  • Scoring Differences – The chart in this manual and the score discussion clearly shows how the ACT is scored – note that the ACT score is a composite (average) whereas SAT scores are noted by section individually.

The best way to determine which test is best for you is to take one of each. With the incredibly busy schedules and workloads today’s students face, concentrating heavily on one test rather than two is a winning strategy.