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SAT vs ACT Math


If you’ve read our post about choosing between the ACT and SAT, you know that they have distinct styles and that taking a practice test of each will help assess which is best for you. Here, we get into the finer details of the differences between the Math sections of the ACT and SAT.

These are probably the two sections that are most different from each other. While both cover a similar range of math concepts from pre-algebra to basic trigonometry, they have different approaches to skill assessment.

SAT Math Content is “Narrow and Deep”

The SAT Math test requires a deep understanding of a relatively small number of math topics, testing fluency, conceptual understanding, and application. About 60% of the math on the SAT is Algebra I and Algebra II. You need to not only understand how to solve an algebraic equation (fluency) but also be able to create an algebraic equation or graph to model and solve a real-world problem (conceptual understanding and application). Geometry appears infrequently. Word problems, real-world contexts, charts and graphs are plentiful.

ACT Math Content is “Broad and Shallow”

The ACT requires a relatively basic understanding of a wide range of math topics, while the SAT requires a deep understanding of a set of core concepts. Algebra is only about 30% of ACT Math, and it has a higher proportion of geometry problems. It also includes a few questions on vectors, logarithms, and matrices, whereas the SAT does not.

Math Topics on SAT and ACT

View our side-by-side comparison showing how often specific math topics appear on the SAT and ACT.

compare math topics sat and act

Other Differences between ACT and SAT Math

The SAT and ACT Math tests vary in other ways as well. How they’re structured (e.g. multiple choice and grid in, calculator and no-calculator), the pace and timing, score weighting, and questioning style are some of the differences we’ll highlight next.

SAT Math ACT Math
LENGTH Two separately timed sections (80 minutes) with a mix of multiple choice and grid-in problems:
25 minutes, 20 questions — no calculators.
55 minutes, 38 questions — approved calculator allowed.
One timed section (60 minutes):
60 minutes, 60 questions — approved calculator allowed.
FORMAT 45 multiple choice questions with 4 answer choices per question 60 multiple choice questions with 5 answer choices per question
13 grid-in questions (students write in their answer)
Geometry formulas provided No formulas provided
PACING 83 seconds per question (80 minutes total) 60 seconds per question (60 minutes total)
SCORE WEIGHTING SAT Math represents 50% of total SAT Score, the sum of the 2 sections. ACT Math represents 25% of total ACT Score


The sample problems below help illustrate the differences in question styles between the two testing companies:

act math sample question

Most students when they read this SAT sample question, react with: “What? I have no idea what that question is asking.” Admittedly, this could have been asked in a much more straight-forward way. That’s the style of the SAT; the questions can seem harder than they actually are and can send students off in the wrong direction. A much more accessible way to ask this same question would be, “The graph of the linear function f has intercepts at (-2,0), and (0,2) in the XY plane. What’s the slope of that line?” Then students would recognize this as simply asking for the slope of the line between two points.

When you read the ACT problem, you see that it’s more straight-forward. ACT seems less interested in playing the misdirection game. However, theirs is a game of speed. With 60 questions that need to be answered in 60 minutes, the challenge of the ACT is the sheer volume of questions to answer in the time allotted. The sample question here is clearly asking, “The slope of one of the lines is 3. What is the slope of the perpendicular line?” For students, they either know this or they don’t. There is no time available in this section to sort it out.

ACT Math vs SAT Math: Which one is right for you?

The place to start is by taking an official, timed practice test of each, then comparing your score results. Summit offers free practice SAT and ACT, which are offered each weekend at our offices and satellite locations. Your free practice test includes a complimentary follow up consultation to guide you through the Score Report analysis and to provide counsel on which test is best for you and how/when to start prepping.

If you have any questions please use the comments box or feel free to contact us.

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  • Doug Woodbrown

    Fantastic. You quantified and put into words something that I have known but did not know to describe or articulate.

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