When it comes to the frequency the tests are offered, the length, and the price, the SAT and ACT are very similar. It’s when you dive into the details of the content on each that the differences become more apparent. Let’s examine how the ACT and SAT are different by breaking down the individual sections.
The English section on the ACT comes first. On the SAT, it comes second. Aside from that, perhaps the biggest difference in these sections is the names – the ACT section is called “English” and the SAT section is called “Writing & Language.” Still, they cover the exact same concepts. Both use the multiple choice format to test English conventions (agreement, punctuation, pronouns) and effective writing (development, organization, word choice). One difference is the SAT’s use of information graphics. Those questions – only found on the SAT – require students to revise writing to properly connect text to information provided in graphs. See our Expert Guide to the ACT English for more specific tips.
When it comes to math, there are huge differences between the two tests, mostly in the question format and calculator presence. The Math section is second on the ACT and is third (non-calculator) and fourth (calculator) on the SAT. The ACT is all multiple choice and allows a calculator for all questions. The SAT is both multiple choice and grid-in, and has two types of sections – one without a calculator and one with. On both tests, each right answer is worth one point, so students benefit from gaining as many points as possible from easy and medium questions. Both the ACT and SAT math sections align with “high school standards,” so their content tested is predictable and repetitive, which lends itself well to student prep. See our Expert Guide to the ACT Math for more specific tips.
If you look at the Reading sections of the ACT and SAT side by side you might say, “Wait a minute, there’s a 30 minute difference here: the ACT reading section is 35 minutes and the SAT reading section is 65 minutes.” Here’s that difference explained: on the ACT, there are two 35-minute sections, one called Reading and one called Science. Together, that’s 70 minutes. The SAT doesn’t have a formal “Science” section; instead it includes two science passages in its much longer “Reading” section. Therefore, the same skills tested in the SAT Reading section (with science passages included) are also tested in the two, shorter ACT Reading and Science sections. Another notable difference: the SAT has two-part reading questions in which the answer to one question is linked to the answer to the preceding question. The ACT Reading section does not connect back-to-back questions in that same way. See our Expert Guide to the ACT Reading for more specific tips.
As mentioned previously, the SAT does not have a separate section devoted to science. Instead the SAT peppers scientific skills like interpreting tables and charts into its Reading, Writing & Language, and Math sections. That’s right – every section of the SAT has questions that require analysis of scientific concepts. For students who choose the SAT to “avoid” science, they need to be aware that science will still appear, albeit in a more diffuse form. See our Expert Guide to the ACT Science for more specific tips.
The ACT’s Science section is really a reading section in disguise. You’re not expected to display your knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, but what you are expected to know how to understand or interpret that content. If you are given a figure or a table or a description of an experiment, you need to be comfortable reading and interpreting that information to answer questions.
If all that sounds OK, then the ACT may work well for you. Just be sure to practice your pacing to maximize your chances of finishing within the time limit.
The writing section is the last part of both the ACT and SAT. The SAT Essay section gives students 10 more minutes than the ACT Writing section. Regardless, in my experience, this writing/essay section tends to be the least stressful for students to finish. The biggest difference between the tests’ sections is in the prompts.
On the ACT writing section, you’ll be presented with some sort of question or topic that’s relevant to you as a high school student. For example, should uniforms be required at school? Should the driving age be 16 or 18? Should the library Wi-Fi restrict access to social media sites? These are questions a teenager will react to. The student is then shown three perspectives on that question and must present his or her own argument about the question.
Meanwhile, on the SAT essay, you’re not presenting your own views; in fact, you are critiquing someone else’s argument. You read an essay that’s been written by someone trying to persuade you of something. Your job is to critique how effective or persuasive that author was by evaluating how well the person invoked emotion and how well the person established himself or herself as a credible source.
One last note: both the ACT Writing and SAT Essay are considered optional. That said, most competitive colleges do require the essay score. You can, of course, research policies of the schools to which you plan to apply and not take the writing section if you’re certain it’s not required for your list of colleges. But also consider that you’ll want to keep your options open. Taking this optional writing section does add an extra 40 minutes (ACT) or 50 minutes (SAT) at the end of a long, tiring exam, but if it means you’re eligible to apply to more colleges, it may be worth it. See ACT Writing vs. SAT Essay for more specific tips.
So, when is the ACT better versus the SAT, or vice versa?
If you never ever want to do math without a calculator, then the ACT is the better choice. If you excel at reading quickly and staying focused, then you won’t be intimidated by having less time per question on the ACT.
You do have more time per question on the SAT, but there’s more to the story. A lot of students enjoy a less rushed pace, but if you find the questions more challenging or the vocabulary more difficult, then that’s not necessarily the best route for you.
Remember on the ACT, you write an essay in which you’re making your own argument. If you enjoy writing in that style, put a check in the ACT’s column.
With the SAT, you need to be OK doing math without a calculator; you enjoy a less rushed pace per question; and you write an essay in which you’re critiquing how persuasive someone is versus presenting your own argument.
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