What Are the Differences Between the ACT and SAT
The SAT has become almost the SAME as the ACT since its early 2016 makeover. Here are the remaining differences:
- The SAT has more intricate reading questions. It asks for inferences more often than the ACT, while the ACT more often asks for straight “find the detail” questions.
- The English aspect of the SAT Math questions often makes students less capable even when they know the math skills. ACT Math is more straightforward. It is closer to what students get in their classroom math textbooks.
- ACT Math includes some higher level concepts not on the SAT: logarithms, matrices, high level functions and complex exponents. The SAT has none of these.
- Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests calculus, and the SAT has thus far included very few trigonometry questions.
- SAT Math has one section where calculators are not permitted.
- The ACT has a full Science Reasoning section; the SAT incorporates some basic science in 2 to 5 Verbal questions.
- Neither ACT nor SAT invokes Science that requires prior textbook study. The experiments presented can be understood without a biology, chemistry or physics background. Reasoning skills are more important than science knowledge for success on both these tests.
- The SAT ordering is: 65 minutes Reading, 35 minutes Grammar, 25 minutes Math without calculator and 55 minutes Math with calculator. An optional 50 minute Essay is at the end. The ACT ordering is: 45 minutes Grammar, 60 minutes Math, 35 minutes Reading, 35 minutes Science Reasoning. An optional 40 minute Essay is at the end.
- The SAT currently has a short “equating “section that students must take if they are not sitting for the Essay. The ACT has no equating section.
- The SAT is less likely to grant a student extra time for a learning difference than the ACT. Both the SAT and ACT cave when parents squawk enough about not getting extra time.
- Over 95% of colleges super-score the SAT. Only about 50% of colleges super-score the ACT. Super-scoring is an advantage to all students taking the same test multiple times.
- The SAT uses higher level vocabulary in its Reading Comp questions and answers. Though it does not test vocabulary directly as it did in the old “Sentence Completions”, a better vocabulary almost certainly leads to more SAT point compared with ACT points.
What is the Test Strategy for Most Students?
For almost every student taking the ACT with good coaching will be advantageous. This mainly owes to the coach-ability of the ACT. Its question types have not changed since the 1990s. (The format changes in 2016 were minor.) Thus, good test prep firms rely on tried-and-true strategies, and students can take many past practice tests to build up their skills.
One type of student seems more apt for SAT success.
- Good with vocabulary
- adept with intricate math
- scared of science.
The SAT has fewer released tests than the ACT. (Its first four practice tests in the new format are amalgamations, not actual tests and thus have no scale.) The SAT’s new scaling has been difficult for colleges to assess. Some admissions officers have expressed that the ACT scaling is more reliable for them. Thus, for a college that is discounting the SAT, the advantage of a good SAT score is not as strong. Because the ACT has stayed consistent in scoring and its format has only been tweaked slightly, the ACT now carries a higher reliability for students. A high ACT score is more likely to impress colleges now than a high SAT score. All other things being equal, the ACT is probably the better test to study for even though study time tends to take 25 – 45 hours with a tutor rather than the SAT’s 20-30 hours.
If a student has time to study for both an SAT and ACT we encourage it. Colleges take the best score that a student submits. When a student has three ACT scores and three SAT scores on record, just one of these six scores, if impressive, gets the student the “fat envelope.” At colleges that super-score, a combination of high sub-scores is all that is needed to impress colleges. Thus, taking both SAT and ACT gives a student more chances for both admission and scholarship awards.
Once a student has committed to ACT study there is very little extra study for the SAT because the ACT skills encompass almost all of the SAT skills. If studying for both SAT and ACT, we encourage full-on ACT study and two tests in succession. Then turn to SAT study for two tests in succession. For example: ACT September, ACT October, SAT December, SAT January is a good progression. If starting later: ACT February, ACT April, SAT May, SAT June is a good progression. However, students needing SAT Subject Tests often want to use the same May and June dates offered for the SAT. Since you can’t do both, taking the Subject Tests in May and June may take precedence. May and June are the best times for Subject Tests, since Subject test success is directly related to the studying most students will do at the end of their school year. Subject Tests are one hour and tend to reflect knowledge and skills learned in a traditional course for English, Math, History, Science or a Language.
Which Test Would Ivy Bound Suggest?
For students who have fifteen hours to diagnose which test will be better, take two ACTs contained in The Official ACT Prep Guide and two SATs contained in The Official SAT Study Guide. Use the Equating table (which shows relative percentiles) to judge which test is better and then prep only for that one test. For students testing under regular conditions, the PSAT and the ACT Aspire are NOT good diagnostics. They are shorter and their scoring tables do not exactly match their “parent” test’s tables.
For students who don’t have the time or inclination to make an ACT vs SAT Diagnosis, prep for the ACT. This allows students to avoid the need for a strong vocabulary. The AT is the more complete test, so if a student desires SAT later, his ACT study covered almost all aspects of the SAT. Students needing SAT Subject Tests are better off with ACT too because ACT dates never conflict with Subject Test dates. (Subject Tests are always scheduled on the same dates as SAT and NEVER on the ACT dates).
Finally, discern whether your student can afford to skip BOTH tests. Don’t allow your student to be caught up in testing just because everyone else is. Students who are starting at community college almost certainly do not need to present SAT or ACT scores, and even among 4-year colleges, some have dropped the SAT / ACT requirement. To these colleges, three years of grades and recommendations are satisfactory and they do not discriminate against students who choose not to give standardized test scores.
Essay 30 min (optional, at end)
60 min / 75 questions
60 min / 60 questions; Need trigonometry, matrices and Complex numbers
35 min / 40 questions; 4 passages
35 min / 40 questions; 7 experiments
No equating section
3 hrs 10 min + 30min optional writing
Approx 25 min extraneous time
$35 + $15 if doing Writing
Still a minority of the most competitive colleges
Essay 25 min (required, at beginning)
35 min / 49 questions
70 min / 54 questions; No trigonometry, logs, matrices, or complex numbers
70 min / 67 questions; 4 passages + 19 Sentence Completion questions
25 min / Math, Reading, or Writing
3 hrs 45 min; Approx 45 min extraneous time
Most colleges; CAL; 10 of the 12 exceptions
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”.
The ACT is a multiple choice test in four sections: English, Math, Reading Comprehension, and Science Reasoning. These run 2 hours 55 minutes in pure testing time. A fifth section, a written essay is optional and given at the end of the four multiple choice sections. Students wishing to impress colleges with their work on a 40-minute essay simply sign up to take the “ACT with Essay” and are assigned to different rooms.
The English section is more appropriately called “grammar”. The ACT demands that students identify errors that include: lack of clarity, punctuation problems, subject/verb disagreement, misused pronouns, redundancy, parallelism, wrong tense, misplaced modifiers, and poor word choice. The test also asks students to improve sentences and evaluate whether hypothetical changes make for effective improvements. Students can expect five passages with 15 questions each (75 total questions).
The Math Section is 60 minutes and contains 60 questions. The categories here are: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, data interpretation, and trigonometry. There is no calculus, no use of the quadratic formula, no measuring areas under curves, and no volumes other than simple cylinders and rectangular solids. Most students have covered all the topics except trigonometry by the middle of their sophomore year. The 3 or 4 trig questions are fairly easy to master by simply knowing two trig equations. Thus the math is not high level, and most juniors are able to take advantage of the ACT based on their math coursework in sophomore year and earlier.
The Reading Comprehension section comprises four passages of 700 – 900 words, each followed by 10 questions. The passages are excerpts from previously published articles, and the ACT includes one for each of the following topics: fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. This section does NOT call upon students’ prior knowledge; all answers can be reached using text material and inferences from the text. The section is 35 minutes, for 40 total questions, allowing on average 8.75 minutes for students to read, evaluate, answer, and bubble-in. For many students, Reading Comprehension is the section on which they are most pressed for time. Answer choices deserve scrutiny, for the difference between a right and wrong answer often turns on one word.
The Science Reasoning section, like the reading section, is 35 minutes and 40 questions. Here there are SIX passages, each describing an experiment or set of experiments, and the data resulting from those experiments. These 40 questions are testing data interpretation and reasoning; they do not test a student’s biology, chemistry, or physics background. Thus, students should not be fearful of not having prior coursework to succeed on the ACT science, as prior knowledge here is ALMOST irrelevant. The exception is that students who know basic terminology, like “degrees Centigrade” or “joules / sec.” have a comfort level that students not previously exposed to the terminology lack. Beyond this basic exposure, students are unlikely to begin with a coursework advantage. Indeed, the ACT goes out of its way NOT to present experiments that were likely given in a science textbook.
The fearsome aspect of the Science Reasoning section is the time limitation. Understanding and interpreting seven experiments in 35 minutes is daunting, and for the student who is new to the task, it is almost impossible. However, a bit of coaching dramatically reduces time pressure here. While the experiments can be complex, most of the QUESTIONS here are remarkably simple, so the well-coached student learns WHERE to quickly find answers and where to avoid distractions. Students coached in “what to look for and what is likely to be irrelevant” usually find they can get through all seven passages with a high success rate on the questions. They may not truly understand the experiment, or its implications, but, they can get the minutia that leads to right answers.
The Essay Writing section was added to the ACT in 2005, revised in 2015, and revised again in 2016. In 40 minutes, students are to respond to ONE open-ended question. Through June 2015, all sample prompts and actual prompts were related to the school experience, such as:
- “should teenagers be required to maintain a C average in school before receiving a driver’s license?”,
- “should high schools require students to complete a certain number of hours of community service?”,
- “should schools start early in the morning?”, and
- “are high school sports generally beneficial?”.
Now the essays ask students to evaluate three perspectives on a philosophical issue. The essays are scored on a 0 – 6 basis by two individuals, in four “domains”. Their scores are reduced to a 2 – 12 scale (7 is average). The readers are typically current or retired school teachers. Should the readers’ grades differ by two points or more, a third reader is brought in to evaluate the essay and that reader’s assessment carries extra weight. The essays are scored “holistically”, meaning there are no specific attributes for which readers give or deny points. Logically supporting a position, writing with clarity, and using good grammar are the ostensible criteria. Readers are not supposed to evaluate spelling and length of essay. It remains to be seen whether readers would ever give perfect scored to a gem that’s very brief and uses poor spelling.
The SAT is 3 hrs 45 minutes of pure testing time, broken into 10 sections. Three sections are “Math”, three are “Critical Reading”, three are “Writing”, and one is an “Equating” section that mimics one of the other multiple choice sections but does not count towards a student’s score.
The “Math” sections call upon students’ coursework in arithmetic, algebra I, and geometry. Like the ACT, there is no calculus, no use of logarithms, no use of the quadratic formula, no measuring areas under curves, and no volumes other than simple cylinders and rectangular solids. Unlike ACT, the SAT does not test trigonometry. Since the New SAT does not test what most of us define as Algebra II, it is suitable for almost any student who has completed sophomore year. The “Math” sections also include some data interpretation and incorporate a few problems that are better classified as “logical reasoning”. It is from these data interpretation and logical reasoning problems that the SAT Math gets its reputation for not correlating with classroom math, but only about 1/3 of the questions come from outside traditional high school curricula. Ultimately, the SAT Math requires resourcefulness, asking students in one problem to call upon both geometry and algebra, for example.
The “Critical Reading” sections comprise 19 sentence completion questions and 48 reading comprehension questions. Success on the sentence completions is based mainly on a student’s vocabulary, but somewhat upon reasoning using sentence structure. Success on the reading comprehension is presumed on a DECENT vocabulary, but the high level vocabulary that occurs is not directly testing in the questions that follow. Students who don’t know a high level / scholarly word that occurs in a passage will find either:
A) no question is asked of that word, or
B) they can infer the word’s meaning from the context.
As in the ACT, the SAT reading passages are selected from prior published works, but ones unlikely to have been read previously by students. Obscure journals and private reflections of lesser-known writers are the source for these passages. Answers to the questions posed by SAT require HIGH SCRUTINY, a bit more than on the ACT. The SAT has 5 answer choices (the ACT has 4), and sometimes one of the wrong answers is based upon a mere nuance of a word or phrase.
The “Writing” sections are a combination of a 25 minute required essay, and 35 minutes of multiple choice asking students to identify errors, improve sentences, or improve paragraphs. The essays are also scored by two Pearson Management readers, also on a 0 – 6 scale, for a possible high of 12 points. SAT essay topics are more “macro” in nature than the ACT’s thus far. The March 2005 topics included:
*Is the opinion of the majority—in government or in any other circumstances—a poor guide?
*Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?
*Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain impartial?
*Is a person responsible, through the example he or she sets, for the behavior of other people?
The essay score comprises about 25% of the “weight” of the student’s “Writing” score. The Essay score is combined with the 49 multiple choice questions to yield a 200 – 800 score. As with all SAT scores, 500 was the original median when the test was first introduced, but scores in actuality average slightly above 500.
The ACT and SAT used to measure similar but distinct constructs. The ACT and SAT now purport to measure achievement related to high school curricula, even though reasoning, which is rarely taught directly in school, s an element of both ACT and SAT.
ACT and the College Board completed a concordance study for the old SAT. They have not done one for the New SAT. Colleges use the old one as a best comparison, but there is NO straight-line equating until the New SAT standardizes itself.
The tables and guidelines for proper use formerly at www.act.org/aap/concordance are no longer in evidence.
Colleges thus are best served when they compare ACT takers to ACT takers, and SAT takers to SAT takers.
ACT Composite Score SAT Score
Critical Reading + Math
SAT Score Critical Reading + Math
ACT Combined English / Writing SAT Score
SAT Score Writing
36 1600 1600 36 800 800 35 1560 1540-1590 35 800 800 34 1510 1490-1530 34 770 770-790 33 1460 1440-1480 33 740 730-760 32 1420 1400-1430 32 720 710-720 31 1380 1360-1390 31 690 690-700 30 1340 1330-1350 30 670 660-680 29 1300 1290-1320 29 650 640-650 28 1260 1250-1280 28 630 620-630 27 1220 1210-1240 27 610 610 26 1190 1170-1200 26 590 590-600 25 1150 1130-1160 25 570 570-580 24 1110 1090-1120 24 550 550-560 23 1070 1050-1080 23 530 530-540 22 1030 1020-1040 22 510 510-520 21 990 980-1010 21 490 480-500 20 950 940-970 20 470 470 19 910 900-930 19 450 450-460 18 870 860-890 18 430 430-440 17 830 820-850 17 420 410-420 16 790 770-810 16 400 390-400 15 740 720-760 15 380 380 14 690 670-710 14 360 360-370 13 640 620-660 13 340 340-350 12 590 560-610 12 330 320-330 11 530 510-550 11 310 300-310
College readiness leads to college success.
Estimated Relationship Between ACT Composite Score and SAT CR+M+W Score
In addition, ACT is providing an ESTIMATED Relationship Table for institutions that also use the
SAT (Critical Reading + Math + Writing) Score. This table provides a score on the SAT that is similar
to an ACT Composite score. The values given are a very accurate representation of what you might
get from a concordance table.
ACT Composite Score Estimated Relationship SAT Score Critical Reading + Math + Writing Estimated Relationship SAT Score Critical Reading + Math + Writing ACT Composite Score 36 2390 2380-2400 36 35 2330 2290-2370 35 34 2250 2220-2280 34 33 2180 2140-2210 33 32 2120 2080-2130 32 31 2060 2020-2070 31 30 2000 1980-2010 30 29 1940 1920-1970 29 28 1880 1860-1910 28 27 1820 1800-1850 27 26 1770 1740-1790 26 25 1710 1680-1730 25 24 1650 1620-1670 24 23 1590 1560-1610 23 22 1530 1510-1550 22 21 1470 1450-1500 21 20 1410 1390-1440 20 19 1350 1330-1380 19 18 1290 1270-1320 18 17 1230 1210-1260 17 16 1170 1140-1200 16 15 1100 1060-1130 15 14 1020 990-1050 14 13 950 910-980 13 12 870 820-900 12 11 780 750-810 11
College Readiness Benchmark Scores
The ACT is the only test with College Readiness Benchmarks directly measuring College Readiness
Standards™, that are based on actual college performance of students, and reflected by specific test scores.
College Course/ Course Area ACT Test Benchmark Score English Composition English 18 Algebra Mathematics 22 Social Sciences Reading 21 Biology Science 24
An ACT College Readiness Benchmark score is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject area test to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses. These scores were empirically derived based on the actual performance of students in college. ACT College Readiness Standards are subject-based knowledge skills statements that are informed by the ACT National Curriculum Survey®, directly measured by the ACT and grouped by ACT score range. They may be found at www.act.org/standard/instruct/index.html.
How Ivy Bound Prepares its Students
For ACT and SAT, Ivy Bound Test Prep offers private tutoring, semi-private tutoring, and classes. All students receive binders of strategies and practice materials; all receive practice tests licensed from test-makers and all are invited to group “Test-and-Review” sessions at no charge.
Classes for SAT Math and Critical Reading (“CR”) generally run 35 – 45 hours over 11 – 14 weeks. Tutoring for Math and CR generally runs 20 – 30 hours, more if starting PSAT (or SAT) scores are below 500 and less if starting PSAT scores are 700 or above. Students should plan to begin 3 – 5 months prior to their target SAT date, and know there is nothing wrong with starting earlier, so long as the student has had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry.
Classes for ACT generally run 50 – 60 hours over 12 – 18 weeks. Tutoring for ACT generally runs 45 – 55 hours, more if starting PLAN or ACT scores are below 20 and less if a student has one or more sections 34+ scores. Students should plan to begin 3 – 5 months prior to their target ACT date, and know there is nothing wrong with starting earlier, so long as the student has had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry. It’s nice to have had Trigonometry for a few weeks, but we can teach trig skills in two tutoring sessions if these are currently missing.
Ivy Bound can allow ACT students who are proficient at Math and Science to do a “half-time” ACT class online. They attend these parts of a class and do all Practice Tests in full. Conversely, a student who needs only Math and Science prep can do an online class that eschews the Reading, Grammar, and Essay prep.
Ivy Bound’s SAT Writing prep is 10 – 14 hours of class (8 – 12 hours is the likely time commitment if doing private tutoring), and includes Ivy Bound instructors evaluating six essays submitted by the student. While Ivy Bound focuses on ACT and SAT test prep, many students find that a byproduct of the Writing prep is improved essay and grammar skills for their English classes.
Writing remains the most “coachable” of the SAT and ACT sections. Ivy Bound’s students tend to make dramatic gains in a short time. The fast-paced single essay is the element of standardized testing most replicated in colleges at exam time. Unfortunately, the majority of colleges have not embraced it, and to our knowledge none has used the writing section for what it does best: capture a student’s creativity, thoughtfulness, and expression devoid of adult help, which polished application essays don’t do.
Because some students do not need Writing prep, Ivy Bound generally keeps the SAT Math and CR course separate from the Writing. The ACT online courses act similarly, with a Math & Science separate from Writing, Grammar, and Reading. Ivy Bound charges less when students take only two or three ACT sections.
Ivy Bound’s success rate is very high. Last year’s score increases among diligent students again exceeded 170 points (Math + CR, based on a previous SAT or PSAT) and the ACT improvements have come in slightly higher (3.3 points on the 0 – 36 scale). We look forward to more students joining in similar success.