The SAT and ACT Math Sections: Which Works Better for You?

Last updated May 7, 2021 

Math is math is math. The Pythagorean Theorem is always a²+b²=c². The square root of 144 is always 12 (unless it’s -12).

You might think it logically follows that one math test is like another. However, that is not always the case! Taking the SAT math test can be a very different experience than taking the ACT version.

The SAT and ACT Math Sections“The difference,” says Dan Ascher, President of A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, “lies in what is emphasized.”

Four areas in which the tests can be compared and contrasted are duration/intensity, range of question types/depth of knowledge, calculator usage, contribution to total exam score.

  1. Duration/Intensity. Another way to state this is how much time is allotted for the entire section (or sections)? How much time do I have to focus on each individual question? How quickly do I have to move?

The SAT is split into two sections. The first section contains 20 questions and lasts 25 minutes; the second section contains 38 questions and lasts 55 minutes. It works out to approximately a minute and a half (a little less, actually) per problem.

The ACT single-section math test has 60 questions and lasts for 60 minutes. That’s two more questions than you need to field on the SAT, and you have twenty fewer minutes to work with. You have exactly one minute for each question.

  1. Range of Question Types/ Depth of Math Knowledge Required. Dan breaks down the difference as follows:

ACT – “Requires a broad, basic knowledge of many concepts.”

SAT – “Requires a deep knowledge of a core set of concepts.”

If you excel at calculating arcs and sectors, it may interest you to know that there are significantly more geometry problems on the ACT than on the SAT—almost three times as many. 25% of the ACT math section is geometry based. By contrast, only 10% of the SAT requires knowledge of geometrical concepts.

In a nutshell, Dan rates the ACT as “lighter and [having] more widespread material” while characterizing the SAT as “tougher [with] more narrow questions.”

  1. Calculator Usage. Calculators are permitted on both SAT and ACT. However, while calculators are allowed for the entire math section of the ACT, they are not permitted on the shorter of the two math sections of the SAT. ACT provides a list of calculator models that are allowed. The calculator policy for the SAT can be found here.  
  2. Contribution to Total Score. The two math sections of the SAT make up the Math Section Score, which is one-half of your overall SAT score. On the ACT the Math score is only one of four sections of the exam (not counting the optional essay) and only contribute one-fourth of your overall ACT score. For some students this can be a significant factor in deciding which exam to prepare for.

In conclusion, avoid trying to label one test “good” and the other “bad.” Instead, go with Dan’s last recommendation on the subject.

“See which exam works best for you,” he says.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our focus is always on you. Our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you would like more information, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware are available to answer questions and provide solutions. You may reach either of them by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.


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