SAT vs ACT Whats The Difference

SAT vs. ACT: 7 Differences to Help You Choose the Best Test

As high school students approach their junior years, they know their scholastic focus is going to broaden beyond just high school. From the summer after their sophomore years, into the fall of their senior years, they deal with all the things related to getting into college, including applications, financial aid, scholarships, campus visits, and those tests you have heard about: the SAT and the ACT.

“What is the purpose of these tests? How are they alike—and how are they different? Which one should I take? How do I know which one is right for me?”

If you have asked those questions—well, that means you’re just like all other students gearing up for college!

1. Both the SAT and the ACT are designed to test just how ready for college you are.

That’s why they’re referred to as college-readiness tests. While the structures of the tests are much more similar since the SAT’s overhaul in 2016, there are still significant differences between them. Neither test is “better” than the other for all students, so understanding the advantages each one presents can help you make an informed decision about which one to focus on.

While both the SAT and ACT have the same number of sections, they don’t have the same sections. Both tests have four sections, but the order of sections and content of each one differs.

What is the SAT?

The SAT begins with two sections in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing category: the Reading Test (65 minutes) and the Writing and Language Test (35 minutes). After that are two Math sections: the No Calculator Test (25 minutes) and the Calculator test (55 minutes).

Following the four main sections is an optional Essay Test (50 minutes), which you must sign up for in advance if you wish to take it.

The SAT is 3 hours long, while the SAT with Essay is 3 hours, 50 minutes long.

What is the ACT?

The ACT begins with the English Test (45 minutes).

Next is the Mathematics Test (60 minutes).

After that is the Reading Test (35 minutes).

Since the ACT has only one Math section, its fourth section is the Science Test (35 minutes).

Like the SAT, the ACT has an optional essay called the Writing Test (40 minutes).The total time for the ACT is 3 hours, 35 minutes with the essay and 2 hours, 55 minutes without it.

2. The ACT has a Science test, but it’s not really about your knowledge of science.

Every student wants to know about the ACT Science section! Once they hear about a subject area that isn’t covered by the SAT, they have all kinds of questions about it

The truth is that it’s not really about testing your knowledge of science itself. Rather, it’s a deeper examination of your skills of reading comprehension and analysis. There will be questions that require some background knowledge of science, but such questions are rare, and the knowledge is always something fairly basic, such as understanding the pH-scale or remembering which planets are the biggest.

The ACT Science Test consists of six passages of 6-7 questions each, dealing with information about scientific theories, experiments, and observations presented in both written and infographic form (An infographic is a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information or data). All that information will be used to answer the questions in the Science section.

As far as pacing goes, the ACT tends to move quickly, and the Science section is the prime example of that. With 40 questions in just 35 minutes, you will have to make quick decisions in order to get through all of them. Don’t expect to finish this section with much time to spare: that may be possible with the other sections, but not with this one. Consider it a success if you have 1-2 minutes at the end to review some of the more challenging questions you had encountered.

3. SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading

Since those 2016 changes to the SAT, the two tests use the same format for Reading: a series of passages 70-100 lines long, each accompanied by 10-11 questions evaluating your level of reading comprehension. Both the ACT and the SAT will present you with passages covering fiction, science and social studies, including passage comparison, where you will be given two passages on the same topic and answer questions that compare and contrast the two.

SAT Advantages:

The SAT is much kinder in its pacing than the ACT. You’ll find this to be a recurring theme when it comes to SAT vs. ACT comparison. You have an average of 13 minutes to complete each of the five passages on the SAT Reading Test. By contrast, the ACT gives you only 8 minutes, 45 seconds for each of its four passages. Since both tests use 10-11 questions per passage (two of the SAT’s passages have 11 questions), that means that SAT essentially gives you almost four more minutes to complete the same number of questions per passage.

ACT Advantages:

The passages on the ACT are easier to read. In the most recent edition of The Official ACT Prep Guide, all 20 Reading passages in the practice tests were written in the last 30 years. While those passages in the ACT use language that is familiar to students, the SAT won’t hesitate to use material written in the 19th or even 18th centuries. Writing styles evolve over time, and the styles from 100 or 200 years ago—or even longer—tends to be unusual and difficult to process.

The ACT does not use infographics. Because the SAT does not have a Science Test, it seeks to test your analysis and synthesis skills throughout the other sections. As a result, infographics are included in the SAT Reading passages. The ACT Reading Test doesn’t include any infographics, so there aren’t any questions asking you to incorporate more information sources than simply the text.

The ACT has slightly easier questions. That’s because the SAT has the evidence questions: pairs of questions which first ask a comprehension question and then a second question asking you to pick out the correct passage to support your answer to the first question. If you have seen these before, then you know how frustrating they can be! Well, the ACT is completely free of such questions.

4. SAT Writing and Language vs. ACT English

Like the Reading sections, these two are also quite similar. Both the SAT Writing and Language Test and the ACT English Test consist of multiple passages and questions about grammar, sentence structure, word choice, and writing design.

SAT Advantages:

The SAT is once again easier on your pacing, averaging 8 minutes, 45 seconds for each of the 11-question passages in the Writing and Language section. In contrast, the ACT English section averages 9 minutes for each of its 15-question passages. Yes, you read that correctly—the ACT give you just 15 more seconds per passage to complete four more questions!

ACT Advantages:

The ACT English Test is free of any infographics. As was the case with the Reading Test, the SAT Writing and Language Test includes infographics as part of its effort to evaluate your skills in social studies and science.

5. SAT Math (two tests) vs. ACT Math (one test)

Unlike the sections covering language arts, the Math sections have a lot of differences. For starters, there are two SAT math sections while the ACT has only one. A host of other differences contribute to all the pros and cons in this SAT vs. ACT matchup.

SAT Advantages:

The SAT provides a reference sheet at the beginning of each of its Math sections. Sadly, the ACT provides no such “cheat sheet” with helpful facts and formulas. Whatever ACT Math formulas you feel you may need to know, you’re going to have to remember for yourself.

The SAT multiple-choice questions have four answer choices while the ACT questions have five. If time is short and you have to guess, you have a 5% better chance of getting the correct answer on the SAT than on the ACT.

The SAT is light on geometry content. While about one-third of the ACT Mathematics Test is geometry, only 6-8 of the SAT’s 58 Math questions cover geometry concepts. If you’re like most students, you will be two or more years removed from taking geometry by the time you take the ACT, so those skills are probably rusty.

The SAT covers a narrower range of math topics. Both tests cover material up through the precalculus level, but the ACT includes many topics that the SAT doesn’t, including matrices, vectors, trigonometric graphs, probability distributions, permutations, logarithms, and inverse trig functions. While all such topics are supposed to be covered by the end of high-school precalculus, few curricula actually do. The pattern of pace favors the SAT. The ACT’s pace of 1 minute per question is faster than than both the SAT Calculator section (1 minute, 27 seconds per question) and the SAT No Calculator section (1 minute, 15 seconds per question).

ACT Advantages:

The ACT is all calculator-allowed. While the SAT has both a No Calculator Math Test and a Calculator Math Test, the ACT Mathematics Test permits the use of a calculator throughout all 60 questions.

The ACT has only multiple-choice questions. Both Math sections in the SAT have student-produced questions that are not multiple choice, while the ACT Math section is entirely multiple choice.

The ACT questions are more straightforward. In the Calculator section of the SAT in particular, the questions are structured in a manner that most students find aren’t used to. The questions on the ACT are much more reminiscent of what you would see in high school. In order to familiarize yourself with those unusual questions, you would benefit from the help of a capable tutor who can lead you through the right SAT Math practice.

To get yourself up to speed on all those extra topics on the ACT, you will definitely want an expert tutor to guide you. A competent ACT Math tutor can also help you brush up on your geometry skills, inform you on what formulas to memorize, and help you navigate the ACT’s brisk pace.

6. SAT Essay vs. ACT Writing

In the past several years both the SAT and ACT have made significant changes to their essay prompts in order to reflect shifts in the focus of high school curricula. For each essay you will be expected to utilize the cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

SAT Advantages:

The timing once again favors the SAT, with 50 minutes to complete the essay as opposed to 40 for the ACT.

The SAT Essay is less challenging than the ACT’s, although that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For the SAT, you will read a passage and then analyze the argument by examining its evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive elements. The ACT, however, goes beyond analysis by prompting you to synthesize your own position on the topic provided and evaluate the pros and cons of the three given perspectives.

ACT Advantages:

The ACT has less material to read before you can start writing. Rather than giving you a passage to read, the ACT has a short summary of a topic and brief descriptions of three possible perspectives on that topic. The SAT Essay begins with a much longer passage for the student to analyze.

The ACT allows you to include your own views. While the SAT Essay is strictly about analyzing the arguments of the author or speaker in the passage, the ACT directs to you form your own position on the topic provided. If you’re like most students, you probably prefer to share your own thoughts and beliefs rather than analyzing someone else’s.

7. The scoring systems for the SAT and ACT are quite different.

Both the SAT and the ACT used a norm-referenced scoring system that evaluates your performance by comparing your scores with everyone else who has taken the test. Don’t think of your score as a percent of some perfect total, but rather a percentile—the percent of students you scored better than.

While both tests convert your raw scores to scaled scores, the scales are significantly different.

SAT Scoring

Your raw scores on both the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test are converted to scaled scores, which are then added together and multiplied by 10 to get your official Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score ranging from 200-800 points. Your raw scores from both Math tests are added together and converted to a scaled score that also ranges from 200-800.

Your composite SAT score is the sum of those two scores, meaning an SAT perfect score is 1600. Each test created by The College Board has its own unique scale, so the same raw scores usually don’t translate into the same scaled scores.

If you take the SAT Essay, you will get a separate set of scores that don’t impact your overall composite score. One a scale of 2-8 points you will receive scores in three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

The SAT also includes many other sub-scores and cross-scores, including analysis scores in both social studies and science based upon infographics questions from all four sections.

ACT Scoring

While the ACT also takes your raw scores and converts them to scaled scores, the scale itself is significantly different. For each of the four sections, you will receive a scaled score ranging from 1-36 points.

Rather than adding the scores together like the SAT does, the ACT takes the average of your scores for each of the four sections to determine your composite score. Thus, an ACT perfect score is a 36. Like the SAT, each test has its own individual scale structure for scoring.

If you choose to take the ACT Writing Test, you will be given a separate set of scores ranging from 2-12 in four areas: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

Along with your composite score and your individual sections scores, the ACT will provide you with two other scores: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), which is based upon your scores on the Science and Mathematics Test; and ELA (English Language Arts), which is a combination of your scores on the English and Reading sections and the Writing Test (if you take it).

Key Takeaways:

The sections covering language arts are similar between the two tests, but the ACT Reading and English sections move at a faster pace than the SAT Reading and Writing and Language sections.

The ACT Math section is all multiple-choice and all calculator-allowed, while the SAT Math has a No Calculator and a Calculator section, both of which have student-produced questions in addition to multiple-choice ones.

The ACT Math section covers a wider range of math topics than the SAT does, but the SAT provides more time per question.

The ACT has a Science section, while the SAT tests scientific analysis through questions in all four sections dealing with infographics. Neither test requires you to remember a lot of scientific knowledge, though.

Both tests have an optional essay, with the SAT providing more time.Composite scores on the SAT range from 400-1600 points (200-800 per the two categories of Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing), while the ACT’s composite scores range from 1-36 (also 1-36 for each of the four sections).

If you’re still having a hard time deciding which test to take, that’s all right. You can make a decision as you prepare for both tests—something that’s a lot easier to do since those 2016 changes to the SAT.

Beginning with SAT prep will give you a head start on preparing for the ACT prep, especially with the Reading and the Writing and Language sections. Because those sections correspond closely to the ACT’s Reading and English sections, the only additional thing you’ll really need to work on when you transition to ACT prep is adapting to the quicker pace.

Once you switch over to prepping for the ACT, your focus should be on Math and Science. Getting comfortable with the Science section is all about achieving balance in your thought process by not overthinking the easy questions and not underthinking the more difficult ones. With the Math section, you want to get yourself in the “ACT mindset”: approaching every question from the perspective that you can use a calculator at all times and that one of the five answer choices right in front of you is the correct one.

While learning all about the differences on your own is a good start, it’s not unusual to still be unsure of which test is best for you. Thankfully, there are lots of experienced SAT and ACT tutors out there who can better guide you in the preparation and decision-making process.

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