SAT Math vs. ACT Math: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Whether math is a strength for you or a weakness, knowing about how math shows up on the SAT and the ACT is vital. The vast majority of colleges accept both exams—and give them the same weight in admissions. That means that, all other things being equal (i.e. you can make both some of the ACT test dates and SAT test dates, you're equally good at the English and Reading sections), if you can dominate the math section on one exam, then that's the exam you should take!

But how do you know which exam you'll do better on? Here are a few pointers about the similarities and differences between SAT and ACT Math…

In Brief

ACT Math

SAT Math

Calculator for all math problems

Calculator for one out of two sections of math problems; no calculator for the other

100% multiple-choice problems

20% grid-in problems; 80% multiple-choice problems

Tests concepts through Algebra II/Trig

Tests concepts through Algebra II/Trig

In Not-So-Brief

Calculators: Ah, yes, the big calculator divide! The SAT has a no-calculator section as well as a calculator section. On the other hand, the ACT lets you use a calculator for the entire Math test. If you're great at mental math, that might tip the scales towards the SAT—but if your calculator is your best friend (at least during Math class), the ACT may be the way to go.

Difficulty: While the SAT used to be known for the lower-level subjects it tested (i.e. not including trig, which the ACT has for a long time), the post-2016 SAT does test Algebra II and Trig. The questions aren't extremely complex in this area on either test, and if you haven't taken Algebra II/Trig yet, the concepts are simple enough that, with some time, you can teach yourself the basics you'll need to know.

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Question Types: The SAT contains "grid-in" questions, which are the math equivalent of "fill in the blanks." They make up 20% of the SAT Math section. On the other hand, ACT Math is all multiple-choice questions, so you have a 20% chance of getting every question right (if you do take the SAT and stumble on a grid-in question, though, "0" or "1" is a good long-shot answer to grid in. You don't lose points, so you might as well put something!) What does this mean for you? For most students, it will make ACT Math slightly easier. On the other hand, if math is one of your strengths, you may shine and distinguish yourself from the crowd on SAT math.

At the End of the Day…

At the end of the day, the best way to solve this debate is to take an ACT practice test and an SAT practice test and see how you do, right at this minute, before you prepare any more (or even before you start preparing). Then, score your tests and look up your math percentile scores online—you'll most likely find a small range of percentiles, depending on the test, but you can also see these concordance tables to convert SAT scores to ACT scores. Once you have this info, you'll be able to see which test comes more "naturally" to you (based on your previous experience and abilities)—and that's the test you should invest your time in preparing for.

 

Special thanks to Rachel for providing us with this article. Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a test prep expert with Magoosh, specializing in undergraduate and graduate admissions exams. She has worked in test prep and education for over a decade. Rachel has a BA from Brown University, a Master Recherche from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She currently divides her time among Paris, London, and Wisconsin (the glamour!).

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