36 University

ACT test prep
that actually works


Side-by-Side Comparison of the Updated ACT and the New SAT


Wow! The SAT has changed. Instead of 10 smaller sections, now there are 4 bigger tests, just like the ACT.  The SAT no longer penalizes for guessing. And the essay is now optional. It has even begun incorporating science items in the English and reading tests. To top it off, question formatting is very similar, too. Let’s get right to it…

(This post contains screenshots of items released by ACT Inc. and the CollegeBoard (makers of the SAT). The items are not the property of 36 University.)

Test Order and Structure: ACT vs SAT

Both tests have 4 main tests and an optional essay.

Section 1 English (75 questions in 45 min) Reading (52 questions in 65 min)
Section 2 Math (60 questions in 60 min) Writing/Language (44 questions in 35 min)
Section 3 Reading (40 questions in 35 min) Math (20 questions in 25 min). Last 5 are grid-in.
Section 4 Science (40 questions in 35 min) Math (38 questions in 55 min). Last 8 are grid-in.
Section 5 (Optional) Writing (Optional Essay in 40 min) Essay (Optional in 50 minutes)
Total Time 2 hrs 55 min or 3 hrs 35 min w/ Essay 3 hrs or 3 hrs 50 min w/ Essay



Max Score 36 1600
Details Each test has max score of 36.

Composite is average of four scores.

SAT Reading max score: 800

SAT Reading derived from Reading & Writing/Language.

SAT Math max score: 800

SAT Math score derived from 2 math sections.

Composite is sum of Reading and Math scores.

There is no penalty for wrong answers on either test.

Writing scores are kept separate from the other scores on both tests.


Subject Comparisons

ACT English vs SAT Writing/Language

Setup 75 questions in 45 minutes 44 questions in 35 minutes
Pace 36 seconds per item ~48 seconds per item
Question Format

Both require you to evaluate

underlined parts of passage.

ACTEnglishFormat SATLanguageScreenShot
 Similar Question Type  ACTEnglishAdd  SATLanguageAdd
 Similar Question Type  ACTEnglishDelete  SATLanguageDelete
Notes SAT English includes graphs.


The English tests on both the ACT and SAT have a very similar structure. The SAT English incorporates science graphs occasionally and seems to require a slightly more extensive vocabulary.


ACT Math vs SAT Math

Setup 60 questions in 60 minutes Part 1 (no calculator): 20 questions in 20 minutes (15 MC, 15 Free Response)

Part 2 (calculator): 38 questions in 55 minutes (30 MC, 8 Free Response)

Pace 60 seconds per item Part 1: 60 seconds per item

Part 2: ~87 seconds per item

Question Format ACT Math has 5 answer choices. SAT Math has 4 answer choices on multiple choice questions.

SAT Math also has some Grid-In answer items.

 Basic Items    ACTMath#54b  SATMath#3
 Same Writers?  ACTMath#54  SATMath#7
Grid-Ins  Not applicable. SATMath#19


***Students grid-in answers on answer document.

Notes  Calculator is allowed on all items. Calculator is allowed on Part 2, not Part 1.

The math tests are not as similar as the English tests.


ACT Reading vs SAT Reading

Setup 40 questions divided over 4 passages

35 minutes

52 questions divided over 5 passages

65 minutes

Pace 52.5 seconds per item 75 seconds per item
Passages 4 passages:

Prose Fiction

Social Science


Natural Science

5 passages:

U.S. or World Lit

U.S. Constitution or Global Conversation

Social Science

2 Science passages

 Comparison Items #1    ACTReading#36  SATReading#3
Comparison Items #2  ACTReading#33  SATReading#7
Notes The SAT has begun adding items that require

students to locate justification in the text.


Notes SAT Reading has science graphs included

in the 2 science passages.


As with the English tests, the Reading tests are very similar. On the SAT English tests, students will work with 2 science passages. On the ACT, the science is in a section on its own.


ACT Science in the SAT Writing and Reading

Setup 40 questions divided over 6 or 7 scenarios

35 minutes

Pace 52.5 seconds per item N/A
Question Format  The ACT Science test requires students to interpret

information in tables and graphs.


The tables and graphs are incorporated in the

SAT English and Reading tests.


 Basic Items Questions require students to evaluate

experiments and research.


The tables and graphs are incorporated in the

SAT English and Reading tests.


ACT Writing vs SAT Essay

Setup 1 essay in 40 minutes 1 essay in 50 minutes
Format 1 Central Question.

3 Perspectives Provided.

Students are asked to:

-state and develop their own position.

-analyze and evaluate the 3 perspectives

in light of their stated position.

Students are given a relatively lengthy

passage to evaluate. Instead of stating

their own position, they are asked to dissect,

analyze, and evaluate the passage.

Examples You can find an example of an ACT Writing

test prompt provided by ACT Inc here:

Sample Prompt

The Collegeboard has two sample prompts

available on its website:

Prompt 1

Prompt 2


Final Word

I don’t consider one test more difficult than the other, and the new SAT is new enough that I haven’t completed enough practice tests to make a complete assessment. At this point, maybe the most obvious difference between the tests is that 1/4 of the ACT score is derived from math items and 1/2 of an SAT score comes from math items.

Kendal Shipley, Ed.D.


Recent and Related Posts

The Story of Lil Carl and the Arithmetic Series

Get a Copy of Your ACT and Fix the Mistakes

“Can you help me with test anxiety?” #30secondswiththeCEO

36U Blog List

36U ACT Tips

#30SecondswiththeCEO Videos List

36U ACT Prep Program