The Differences Between SAT and ACT Math


One of the potentially most stressful decisions parents and students have to make during the college counseling process is the choice between the SAT and the ACT. While students can begin their junior year by taking the PSAT and possibly the preACT, many schools only offer one of the official practice tests. Students can take a real-conditions practice test at home or at a tutoring center, or can take a real ACT following the PSAT to see what the differences between the tests feels like, but at a certain point, a decision must be made. Time during the junior and senior years is short, and students have many responsibilities between school work, extracurriculars, and the college application process. Eventually, students should choose one test on which to focus. A determining factor can be the differences between SAT and ACT math.

One obvious factor is the timing difference between the two tests. Students are allotted slightly more time per question on the SAT than the ACT, though this difference is minute and misleading. The ACT has a single math section containing 60 questions, and lasts exactly 60 minutes. The SAT, in contrast, has two distinct math sections: a short section of 20 questions, 25 minutes in length, and a long section of 38 questions, 55 minutes in length. Since the two SAT math sections have slightly different timing from each other, directly comparing the number of seconds a student has on average per question is a distraction.

Student and parents are better placed to examine the differences in the focus of the math questions on each test. The SAT has historically been a test focused far more on complex problem solving, whereas the ACT has also been designed with more straightforward skill demonstration in mind. Since many of the SAT math questions seem more interested in testing how a student figures out what to do, it is not surprising that the College Board allots more time per question. The writers of the ACT tend to craft more calculation-based questions, which many high school students can work through more efficiently, requiring less time per question.

Both tests arrange the math questions in order of difficulty, meaning that the first question in a math section is the easiest. The questions increase in difficulty as the question numbers grow progressively larger, culminating with the last question in the section as the most difficult. Students are generally not expected to answer every math question correctly, based on the way both the SAT and ACT are scaled, so thinking strategically about on which questions to spend time is an important aspect of the math sections of both tests.

Another factor to consider is use of a calculator. Both the SAT and the ACT have allowed calculator use for years, but the SAT added a twist in 2016. Of the two different math sections on the SAT, the short, 25-minute long section no longer allows students to use a calculator. Students may still use a calculator on the long math section on the SAT. Conversely, there are no restrictions on when a student can use a calculator on the ACT. More important, however, is the knowledge that both the SAT and ACT test makers claim that a calculator is not needed for any specific question on either test. Calculators are tools, and will generally be used sparingly on either test. Students tent to utilize a calculator when a question involves calculations with decimals, exponents, or very large numbers. These topics, while not uncommon, only constitute a small percentage of the topics on either the math sections of the SAT or the ACT.

Another noticeable difference between the SAT and the ACT is the inclusion of open response questions on the SAT. The open response questions, known as “Grid-Ins” in the tutoring business, are somewhat different from open response questions on annual, state, public school testing. Rather than requiring a text response, students only need to provide a numerical answer to a math question, filling in the bubble grid similarly to answering a multiple choice question. It is important to remember, though, that these Grid-Ins only account for less than one fourth of the total math questions on the SAT. The ACT does not include any open response questions. While the Grin-Ins are no more difficult than the multiple choice questions on the SAT, many students feel they are more difficult, primarily due to the lack of guessing options.

More important than the small number of open response questions on the SAT that do not appear on the ACT is the bigger difference in math content on the two tests. The SAT has an intense focus on Algebra. Well over 60% of the questions on the SAT address an Algebra skill, and another 25-30% of questions involve skills from Statistics topics. The remaining questions on the SAT address more advanced math skills with only a tiny percentage of questions involving Geometry. The ACT is more balanced between different math skills. Approximately one third of the math questions on the ACT involve Geometry, with another third referencing Algebra. Middle-school statistics topics and advanced math skills constitute the final third of the questions.

Ultimately, the SAT and the ACT are more similar than different. They both test facility with a wide range of math skills learned over several years of school, from middle school to 11th grade. There are some structural differences between the two tests in terms of timing and question structure, but these differences are actually small. Rather than worrying about Grin-Ins, the number of seconds per question, or when one can or cannot use a calculator, students should consider their comfort level with Algebra and Geometry in deciding between the two tests.