June 10, 2019

ACT Math or SAT Math: Which Test is Harder?


Questions. We all have them. Choices. We all face them. Decisions. We all make them.

You’re probably no different. As a test taker, prepping for an upcoming ACT or SAT, you’re certainly used to tough choices by now. Life has taught you to compare and contrast, to weigh the pros and cons.

College is still ahead of you, but you’ve already faced some of life’s most difficult questions: iPhone or Android? Republican or Democrat? Stranger Things or Stranger Things 2

And now a new choice arises: Should I take the ACT or the SAT? (Or both?)

In order to make that decision, it’s important to know the differences in the tests. This post will deal specifically with the math sections of the ACT and the SAT -- similarities, differences, number of questions, scoring, average time per question, etc.

ACT Math vs. SAT Math: Tale of the Tape


Which test lets me use a calculator?

  • ACT Math allows you to use a 4-function, scientific or graphic calculator throughout the entire section.
  • SAT Math is split into two smaller sections — one section allows for calculators and the other does not.

Advantage: No real edge to either test here because there is no need for a calculator on the SAT Math No Calculator section.


How long is the actual math section?

  • ACT Math is one section made up of 60 questions. You are given 60 minutes to complete the entire section.
  • The SAT Math No Calculator section is made up of 20 questions. You are given 25 minutes to complete the section.
  • After a five minute break, the SAT Math Calculator section is administered. The Calculator section has 38 questions, and you are given 55 minutes to complete this section.

Advantage: Slight edge to the SAT here — two fewer questions, approximately 15 more seconds allowed to answer each question, and a break between sections.


How are the questions formatted?

  • ACT Math is made up entirely of multiple choice questions. Each question comes with five answer options.
  • SAT Math No Calculator section is comprised of 15 multiple choice questions (with four answer options) and five grid-in questions (where the student has to produce a response.) The Calculator section has 30 multiple choice questions and eight grid-ins.

Advantage: If you prefer multiple choice questions, ACT wins this round.


What mathematical concepts are covered?

  • ACT Math asks questions in six categories: Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, Coordinate Geometry, Plane Geometry, and Trigonometry.
  • SAT Math is broken down into four categories: Heart of Algebra, Problem
  • Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, Additional Topics in Math (such as geometry and trigonometry).

Advantage: No advantage for either test here. The content is pretty similar, but the way it is presented is notably different — ACT Math asks questions in a more direct way; SAT Math questions are phrased in a way that requires a bit of reading comprehension.


Are formulas provided?

  • ACT Math does not provide any formulas.
  • SAT Math provides a formula box for each math section.

Advantage: If you have forgotten your mathematical formulas, the SAT has an advantage here. However, with solid ACT test prep in advance, this shouldn’t be an issue for you.


How are the math sections scored?

  • ACT Math awards you one raw point for each correct answer and zero raw points for any incorrect or blank answer. Therefore, there is no subtraction from your score for any incorrect or blank answer.
  • SAT Math is a little different. For each multiple choice question answered correctly, one raw point is awarded. If a multiple choice question is left blank, zero raw points are given. However, if a multiple choice question is answered incorrectly, -0.25 raw points are issued. (There is no penalty for an incorrect or blank grid-in answer.)

Advantage: ACT gains an edge here because they issue no penalty for incorrect multiple choice answers. (Note: The ACT and SAT both convert raw scores into a scaled score. These are the scores you receive when test results are released.)



When we look at the side-by-side comparisons of the ACT Math and SAT Math sections, the tale of the tape shows us it’s a draw. They have slight differences that should be considered, but that doesn’t mean one test is easier (or harder) than the other.

Asking ACT or SAT? is the test-taking equivalent of asking Instagram or Snapchat? They both have similar features, and they both get the job done, so it’s really more about the user’s preference. Besides, you can always use both!

Deciding which test to take (or whether to take both tests) is more about your preference. The best way to make your decision is to talk to other students who have taken the tests, sit down to take practice tests, and delve into specialized, high-stakes exam prep for either or both products.

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