ACT or SAT? The Short and Sweet Guide to College Entrance Exams

November 5, 2012

Written by Lana Larcher, Content Curator at


For students planning on going to college, junior year is ridden with college apps and tests, namely the ACTs and SATs. The rule of thumb has been “the east and west coast schools value SAT scores more, while the mid-west wants an ACT score.” While this generally proves to be true, here’s a fast break down on the similarities, differences, and whether it’s worth taking both tests.

Subjects Tested

As a student, your first concern may be “What’s on the test?” The ACT and SAT differ slightly in content included. The SAT includes only three subjects: Reading, Math, and Writing. All three of these portions of the test are absolutely mandatory. The ACT, on the other hand, tests Math, English, Reading, Science, and Writing (if you so choose).


“Wait, the ACT tests writing only if I choose to do so?” That’s right. As a student, you decide whether or not you want to take the writing portion of this test. However, beware! Some colleges require the writing portion, some suggest it (and will look at it as an additive part of your score), and some do not care about the writing score. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t sure where you’re applying yet, taking the writing portion is your best option. Cover all of your bases.


Each of these tests costs money, which is one reason why it is important to figure out whether or not it’s necessary to complete both. If you are only applying to schools that want the ACT, then don’t take the SAT. If you’re still unsure, as many college students are, take both of them, and then send your records only to schools that want that particular test score (as sending scores can be an additional cost). The actual cost of each test is: SAT - $50 ($17 late fee), ACT - $35 ($50.50 with the writing portion). So, financially speaking, there’s no benefit to choosing one test over the other.


Possibly the biggest difference between these two tests is the style of testing used. The ACT measures what you have learned in school (knowledge), whereas the SAT measures your verbal abilities and reasoning (aptitude) without solely relying on what you’ve learned in school. This means that, on the ACT, you’ll only see questions pertaining to what you have (or should have) previously studied. On the SAT, you may see articles, charts, and graphs related to something you’ve never heard of before -- but you will be given enough information that, combined with your critical thinking skills, you will be able to deduce an answer from what’s given to you.


That probably sounds like the SAT is way easier, right? Not necessarily. The SAT test makers take off quarter of a point for every question you answer incorrectly; however, questions you leave blank do not count against you. Therefore, if you were to answer one question correctly, and the next four incorrectly, you’d have a score of 0.

“The ACT is easier”

Many students that take both the SAT and the ACT claim that the ACT is easier, and/or students score better on the ACT. This is likely due to the fact that the ACT only includes questions regarding things you have (or should have) learned. Therefore, you’re more at ease in answering the questions, because it’s familiar to you. The SAT is not the same; it will likely give you unfamiliar information and ask you to use it to solve a problem, which uses your critical thinking and reasoning skills. Although many students possess and are capable of answering these questions, they are often nervous about taking the test that will get them into college, and therefore do worse on the SAT than the ACT, purely due to lack of familiarity.

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