What’s Different About Taking the ACT?

Lots of families ask me about the ACT. What is it? Do I have to take it? Is it easier than the SAT? I heard it was easier than the SAT. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to write a post outlining some of the more subtle differences between the SAT and the ACT.

According to the official ACT website, “the ACT® is a curriculum- and standards-based educational and career planning tool that assesses students’ academic readiness for college.”  It is composed of four sections:

  1. English
  2. Math
  3. Reading
  4. Science


The first three are of no surprise, but many are caught off-guard by the inclusion of a Science section on the test, and it is frequently cited by students as the most difficult section. Part of what makes it so difficult, and this is true of much of the ACT, is the pace at which you must complete the questions. Let’s compare the section times and number of questions on the ACT to those of the Redesigned SAT. (Warning: Math Incoming!)

SectionTime# of QuestionsTime/Question
ACT English45 minutes75 questions36 seconds/question
SAT Writing and Language35 minutes44 questions48 seconds/question


SectionTime# of QuestionsTime/Question
ACT Math60 minutes60 questions60 seconds/question
SAT Math (No Calculator Section)25 minutes20 questions75 seconds/question


SectionTime# of QuestionsTime/Question
ACT Reading35 minutes40 questions53 seconds/question
SAT Reading65 minutes52 questions75 seconds/question


SectionTime# of QuestionsTime/Question
ACT Science35 minutes40 questions53 seconds/question
SAT Math (Calculator Section)50 minutes38 questions79 seconds/question


ACT Essay40 minutes
SAT Essay50 minutes


TestTotal TimeTotal # of QuestionsTime/Question (no essay)
ACT215 minutes215 questions49 seconds/question
Redesigned SAT 225 minutes154 questions68 seconds/question

The key take-away from this is that the ACT gives a student, on average, 19 seconds less per question. That doesn’t sound like much, but multiply that diffrerence over the 154 questions on the SAT and the SAT effectively gives you 48 more minutes to complete the same amount of work!

That is huge!

Surely now you are thinking, “but Mike, if the ACT were objectively harder due to it’s rapid pace, wouldn’t everyone just take the SAT?” To which I would reply, yes. Yes, they would. Unfortunately for the confused parent, the pacing is not the whole story.


Some Key Differences


The ACT tests more Math Concepts 

There is a lot more that you have to know in order to take the ACT, especially concepts in the realms of Geometry and Trigonometry. The Redesigned SAT, on the other hand, is extremely Algebra and Data-Analysis heavy. Neither test is objectively easier in this regard, but it is something to keep in mind when deciding which is better for you. Needing to know a lot of different topics combined with the rapid pace of the ACT is often one reason those who are less-than-enthused with math shy away from it; conversely, the SAT emphasizes word problems–and longer ones at that–much more than the ACT does.


The ACT Reading Section Requires a More Holistic Approach

There is a huge difference between the reading sections on the tests that does not get talked about much: the questions on the ACT are in random order, while those on the SAT generally follow the structure of the text. Depending on how you approach the reading questions, you may need entirely different strategies for both tests. The SAT Reading section’s format allows you to answer the questions while you are reading through the text, which is exceedingly difficult to do on the ACT. I’d argue that the Redesigned SAT wins out here.


ACT English Focus on more simple grammar concepts

The ACT English section bombards you with lots of simple grammar questions; The SAT gives you much more time, but asks you to answer more rhetoric-based questions. Again, there is no clear “easier” option. They are just different.


The ACT has a Science Section. The SAT has Science Questions

The Science section is arguably the most difficult on the test. It requires reading boring technical passages and analyzing them in light of data figures–tables, charts, graphs–pictured alongside the passages. It is also brutally fast. The Redesigned SAT incorporates science-based questions in all four sections of the test. None require the science-content knowledge that some of the ACT questions do, just solid reading comprehension skills. The SAT is easier in this area.



There is also the more ethereal feel of the tests to consider. In spite of some of the arguments for taking either test, some students just plain prefer one over the other for their own reasons. Even after the changes making the SAT more content-based and clear, many students still feel that it is “tricky,” for example. As I’ve said in the past, the best option a student has is to try both a practice SAT and ACT and see which one he or she prefers, then invest his or her time preparing for just that test.

Have more questions? Give us a call! We love talking about the tests and will try our hardest to answer any questions you have about them.




Mike Constanza is the Director of Learning and Technology for Silver Oak Learning K-12. His expertise is primarily in reading, writing, SAT and ACT prep.