ACT and SAT: Eight Major Differences

1)   ACT includes trigonometry; SAT does not.

2)   ACT includes “science reasoning”, which is logical reasoning based on data and scientific terms, but not based on classroom science.

3)   SAT deducts points for wrong answers.  However with coaching, students can actually use this to their ADVANTAGE.

4)   SAT Math demands scrutinizing the English aspect of math questions.  ACT is more straightforward, making it a more comfortable test, but not necessarily easier.  ACT math can include logarithms, high level exponent problems, and matrices; SAT does not.

5)   SAT directly tests vocabulary.  This rewards students who are big readers or good vocabulary absorbers.

6)   SAT Reading is generally less interesting and the answers rely more on nuance.

7)   SAT requires a 25 minute essay.  ACT’s  essay (30 min.) is optional now.

7A)   Optional essays typically mean a student with high aims must do them or look like a laggard. The optional ACT essay  will typically ask about familiar “school-related”  things that American teens are familiar with: “should dress codes be used in school?”,  “ should students receive academic credit for community service?” , and “should varsity athletes be allowed a less-demanding class load?” are among the recent ACT topics.

SAT essay topics are typically philosophical: “Are there heroes in the modern world?”, “is effort involved in pursuing any goal valuable?”, “should people prefer new ideas or values to those of the past?”, and “is there value for people to belong only to groups in which they have something in common?” were recent SAT prompts.

8)   One difference that could be considered “major” is colleges’ USE of the SAT vs ACT: Almost all colleges “cherry-pick” SAT sub-scores, meaning they consider the best combination of Math, CR and Writing earned on different dates.  Only a minority of the “most competitive” colleges do this with the four ACT sub-scores.  Thus, a student who does not ping strong scores on all ACT sections on the same day, is being dragged down by one or more weaker sections, whereas cherry-picking SAT scores means one weak section on one day does not hurt.

Our suggestions:

Make an early comparison. Buy The Official SAT Study Guide ISBN # 087447-7182 and take any two of the first three full length tests under timed conditions. Buy The Real ACT Prep Guide ISBN # 076891-9754 and take any two of the three tests therein under timed conditions. Score them and use the accompanying table to compare the non-Writing sections (1600 SAT scale) with one another.

If you really need to save time, you need not do the Writing sections for either (they compare almost the same). SAT’s two multiple choice Writing Sections and ACT’s first section (“English”) are almost the same. And the Essay (Section 1 on an SAT and the last section on the ACT) are almost the same. Students may skip these sections and thereby save time. SAT thus becomes a six-section test (2.5 hours) and ACT becomes a three section test (2.25 hours).

Absent a comparison (or if the comparison shows nearly identical scores): most students seeking admission to competitive colleges who are capable of absorbing vocabulary should study for SAT and disregard ACT if scores are strong. Add ACT prep if after two post-tutoring SATs the scores are unlikely to impress your target colleges.

Our equally important suggestion: START EARLY. Colleges credit the best score, so it’s important to have three or more opportunities to take these tests. With vacations, proms, and graduations, that means the students who plan in advance will have the best opportunities. This is especially true for families that want to take advantage of Early Decision. For students who’ve had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry by the end of sophomore year, the summer before junior year and/or the fall of junior year are usually the best times to prep.

ACT                                         vs.                  SAT                          

 “English”                                                     “Writing”

Essay  30 min (optional, at end)                             Essay 25 min (required, at beginning)

Grammar                                                                         Grammar

60 min              75 questions                                        35 min              49 questions

Math                                                                          Math

60 min              60 questions                                        70 min              54 questions

Need trigonometry, matrices                                   No trigonometry, logs, matrices, or complex numbers

matrices and Complex numbers

Reading                                                                        “Critical Reading” 

35 min              40 questions                                        70 min                          67 questions

4 passages                                                                        4 passages + 19 Sentence Completion questions.

Science reasoning

35 min              40 questions                                          no science

7 experiments

Equating Section                                                       Equating section

No equating section                                                       25 min              Math, Reading, or Writing

3 hrs 10 min + 30min optional writing                     3 hrs 45 min

Approx 25 min extraneous time                                Approx 45 min extraneous time

$35 + $15 if doing Writing                                             $49

Superscoring – still a minority of the                Superscoring – by almost all colleges; Univ of Calif are

most competitive colleges.                                        10 of the 12 exceptions

“Score Choice” – yes                                                 “Score Choice” – yes

Score Choice is not being adhered to by many colleges, which are asking to see all scores. However, all these colleges claim to assess students on their best scores.

Bottom Line:  the tests are similar.  No college requires one over the other, and to our knowledge, no college has a preference. ACT remains a bit broader in content.  ACT to a slight degree tests knowledge a bit more than resourcefulness.  Knowledge AND resourcefulness are “coach-able”.

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