What’s the difference between SAT Math vs ACT Math?

Stay organized with our free SAT checklist.   Download your copy here.

Colleges use both the SAT and the ACT in their admissions decisions, and neither is considered “better” than the other. The tests are generally used in the same way: to determine your academic readiness and potentially award merit scholarships. They also cover a lot of the same material, including mastery of high school level math.

 

But if colleges have no preference over which test you take, then how do you make the decision between the two? Is there one better suited to you? Here’s what you need to know about the SAT Math and ACT Math sections and how to decide between them.

 

The SAT and ACT: A Quick Review

 

The SAT and the ACT are both standardized college entrance exams. The SAT is the older of the two exams, and it is administered by College Board. It’s separated into three sections with an optional essay, and Math is the last section on the SAT.

 

The ACT is administered by ACT, and it’s separated into four sections with an optional writing section. Math is the second section on the ACT.

 

One of the biggest differences between SAT Math and ACT Math is time. In general, the SAT gives you more time to think through questions. The ACT, on the other hand, has more time pressure and focuses more on recalling information or skills you’ve learned in high school.

 

What is the SAT Math Like?

 

The SAT Math is divided into two subsections, a no-calculator-allowed section and a calculator-allowed section. In total, the Math test gives you 80 minutes to complete 58 questions.

 

  • The no-calculator portion gives you 25 minutes for 20 questions.
  • The calculator portion gives you 55 minutes for 38 questions.

 

The SAT categorizes math questions into one of four categories, and there’s a consistent number of questions in each category:

 

  • Heart of Algebra (19 questions): linear equations and inequalities, systems of linear equations/inequalities, and their graphs.
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis (17 questions): ratios, proportions, percentages, graphs and charts, statistics, and probability.
  • Passport to Advanced Math (16 questions): quadratic and nonlinear equations like exponential equations and their graphs.
  • Additional Topics in Math (6 questions): geometry and trigonometry.

 

For a more in-depth look at the SAT Math, check out our Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Math.

 

What is the ACT Math Like?

 

The ACT Math is one continuous section where you’ll have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions.

 

The ACT categorizes math questions into two main categories, and they have a consistent percentage of questions in each category and sub-category.

 

  • Preparing for Higher Math (57-60%)
    • Number and Quantity (7-10%): real and complex numbers, integers and rational exponents, vectors and matrices.
    • Algebra (12-15%): linear, polynomial, radical and exponential equations.
    • Functions (12-15%): linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions.
    • Geometry (12-15%): shapes and solids, trigonometric ratios and equations of conic sections.
    • Statistics and Probability (8-12%): spread of distributions, data collection methods, and calculating probabilities.
  • Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%): rates/percentages, proportions, area and volume, mean and median, and equivalent expressions; also includes problems that combine the Preparing for Higher Math subcategories

 

For more information about the ACT, check out our post What’s the Highest ACT Score Possible?

 

Want to increase your SAT score?

Our students see an average increase of 250 points on their SAT scores.

Biggest Differences Between SAT Math and ACT Math

 

Although the SAT and ACT have their unique way of categorizing questions, the underlying mathematical concepts are pretty much the same. After all, they are standardized tests that show how well you have mastered high school level math, so they can’t be wildly different when it comes to what they test.

 

That said, they do have some important differences when it comes to their test structure. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

 

SAT Math ACT Math
  • Gives you more than a minute per question
  • Gives you 1 minute per question
  • Slightly greater emphasis on critical thinking skills
  • Slightly greater emphasis on remembering how to perform calculations
  • Provides a short reference sheet
  • Provides no reference sheet
  • Has a no-calculator section
  • Allows calculator on entire test
  • Has multiple choice and gridded response questions
  • All multiple choice
  • Multiple choice has 4 answer options
  • Multiple choice has 5 answer options.

Which Should You Take?

 

Colleges don’t have a preference as to which test you take, so the choice is up to you. Neither test is easier or harder, but you may find that you prefer the test format of one over the other, or that you score higher on one over the other.

 

The best way to determine which test you should take is to take a free practice test of each. Score your test and reflect on your experience. Did you feel comfortable with more time per question on the SAT, or did you prefer being able to use your calculator for every question? To get you started, we’ve rounded up links to free and official practice tests:

 

Tips for Studying

 

After you’ve chosen which test you want to hone in on, review your practice test more thoroughly and see what kinds of questions you missed. Identify concepts that you need to review or if you have test habits you need to shed, like rushing or second-guessing.

 

Next, review those concepts you need help with and come up with strategies to overcome your poor test habits. For example, if you tend to second-guess your answers, think about how you can become more confident in your initial answer choices, and practice that as you review any academic concepts.

 

Work with a trusted math teacher or take advantage of free resources. Your school or local library might have test review classes, prep books, or free practice test sessions to help you improve your score.

 

Last, make sure to monitor your progress and adjust your strategies to get you to the score you want. Take another practice test and analyze how you did. Where did you improve? Where do you still need to improve?

 

Preparing for a standardized test takes a lot of trial and error on your own, and you may find that you’re improving more slowly than you want. That’s why we pair our students with experts who can speed up the process for you and offer you personalized guidance. When students work with our tutors, they see an average 250 point increase in their overall SAT score. Find out if our SAT program is right for you!

 

Check out these posts for more information on how to ace standardized tests.

Want more SAT tips sent to you?

Sign up below and we'll send you expert SAT tips and guides.


Gianna Cifredo
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Gianna Cifredo is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, where she majored in Philosophy. She has six years of higher education and test prep experience, and now works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida and is a proud cat mom.