ACT vs SAT-What's the Difference?

Standardized exams tend to ignite a sense of anxiety among students. Not everyone is a strong standardized test taker. However, the reality is that many colleges use the results of the standardized exams in their decision-making process for admission and merit scholarships. This is especially true for top tier colleges and competitive programs (i.e., nursing, engineering, etc).

Test Prep, Brentwood, TN

Being a college admissions consultant in Franklin, TN and Brentwood, TN, I meet students every year who do not know the difference between the exams. Which exam should you take? Well, that depends on your academic profile. Some colleges prefer one exam over the other. In other instances, it may be strategic to submit both scores. There is no cookie cutter approach. As a Brentwood, TN and Franklin, TN independent educational consultant, my role is to create a customized admissions roadmap for each student. This depends on your grades, goals, and overall student profile. Students should not all have the same strategy. And in case you didn’t know, there are other standardized exams that students should be considering to help strengthen their application as well—which again, depends on your ultimate post-secondary goal. These include SAT subjects, IELTS, CLEP, IB, and more. But for now, we’ll focus on the SAT vs the ACT exam.

The biggest difference between the ACT and SAT is that the ACT includes a science section. The SAT includes one math section on which students may not use a calculator. Both exams are used by colleges for admission and merit-based scholarships. Often, students only need to take and submit one exam. Regardless of which exam the student takes, I highly recommend taking the writing with each section. Below is a general overview breakdown of the exam differences.

Test Structure


  • Reading

  • Writing & Language

  • Math

  • Essay (Optional)


  • English

  • Math

  • Reading

  • Science Reasoning

  • Essay (Optional)



3 Hours (without the essay)

3 hours, 50 minutes (with the essay)


2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)

3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)


ACT: 5 reading passages

SAT: 4 reading passages


SAT: None

ACT: 1 science section testing critical skills and specific science knowledge



  • Arithmetic

  • Algebra I & II

  • Geometry, Trigonometry, and Data Analysis


  • Arithmetic

  • Algebra I, II

  • Geometry & Trigonometry

Calculator Policy

ACT: You can use a calculator on all math questions.

SAT: Some math questions don’t allow you to use a calculator.


ACT: Optional

SAT: Optional


ACT: On a scale of 1-36

SAT: On a scale of 400-1600

So should you take the ACT or SAT? The answer is…that depends. Working with a Brentwood college admissions consultant can help guide you to the right decision.

Regardless of what test you take, students should enroll in test prep in Brentwood, TN or test prep in Franklin, TN. Working closely with a local test-prep tutor will ensure the student is absorbing the information needed to do well on the exam. Some colleges “superscore” and some colleges have “score choice”. More on that in another blog. :-)

Good luck!

#StandardizedExams #TestPrep #CollegeApplications

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