Choosing Between the ACT & SAT
The ACT and New SAT present both obstacles and opportunities for students with learning differences. Our aim with these sections is to be informative to both parents and counselors, allowing them to know what to expect of these two college entrance exams and concludes with recommendations for how to study and when. These sections will not attempt to fit numerous strategies to students with specific learning disabilities.
The timing of the tests mentioned herein is as STANDARD regularly administered tests. We address added time for students who qualify in a later section of this page.
Essay 40 min (optional)
Multiple Choice Grammar 45 min
60 min / 60 questions
Math more straightforward
No lengthy word problems
35 min / 40 questions
4 passages, 10 questions each
35 min / 6 or 7 questions each
No Equating Section
205 min + 40min opt’l essay
3.25 hours +
Still a minority of the most competitive colleges
Writing and Language Use
Essay 50 min (optional)
Multiple Choice Grammar 35 min
80 min / 58 questions
Math is trickier, including
Lengthy word problems
65 min / 52 questions
5 passages with 10 or 11 questions each
25 min for students NOT doing the Essay
180 min + 25 min equating OR 50 min essay
3 hours +
Bottom Line: the tests have become similar. ACT remains a bit broader in content.
In pure time, this is a 2 hr. 55 min. multiple choice test in four sections: English, Math, Reading Comprehension, and Science Reasoning. 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. This section has the most questions – 75 — and comes first.
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 logarithms, 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 trigonometry 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 hours of pure testing time, broken into 5 sections. Two sections are “Math”, one is “Reading” and one is “Writing and Language Use”. For the final section students either take an optional Essay, or else stay and be subjected to a multiple choice section meant to help the test makers equate one test with another. This “Equating” section 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 measuring areas under curves, and no volumes other than simple cylinders and rectangular solids. Unlike ACT, the SAT now gives questions that demand use of the Quadratic Formula. The New SAT now tests what most of us define as Algebra II. So sophomore year can leave many students not fully equipped to take all sections without extra SAT coaching. 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. Depending on the school, 40% to 90% of the math on the SAT is covered by the junior year. Achieving the best success on the SAT Math requires resourcefulness, asking students in one problem to call upon both geometry and algebra, for example.
The “Reading” sections comprise 5 passages and 52 reading comprehension questions. The high level vocabulary that occurs is not directly tested in the questions that follow. Students who don’t know a high level / scholarly word that occurs in a passage will find either:
- no question is asked of that word, or
- they can infer the word’s meaning from the context.
However, students not knowing some high level words IN THE QUESTION STEMS can end up with wrong answers despite understanding the passage. 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 often require inferences, more than on the ACT. Among the SAT’s answer choices, sometimes one of the wrong answers is based upon a mere nuance of a word or phrase. These two aspects make the SAT reading more “intricate” than ACT reading.
The “Writing and Language Use” section is 35 minutes of multiple choice asking students to identify errors, improve sentences, or improve paragraphs. It is very similar to the ACT.
The Essay is one 50 minute section demanding the students evaluate the persuasiveness of a 2-page published piece. This section is rarely taught in high school. Students fortunate enough to take a Rhetoric class in school have an advantage on this section. Students in AP English classes with instructors who teach arguments are also advantaged. The SAT has readers who score students’ essays based on three criteria:
- Understanding the task
- Composing, and
- Language use (Grammar)
Two readers each assign a 1, 2, 3, or 4 to each grade. The scores are added to yield a final score of 6 – 24. This 6 – 24 grade stays separate of the 200 – 800 scales for Math and Verbal. Colleges choose how much weight to assign this essay. Since the 2016 change, many colleges have de-emphasized the importance of the essay, and only colleges ranked in the top 100 care at all about the essay score.
The SAT has not yet settled in as a consistent standard. The test-makers are making the SAT not only serve as a college admissions test, but are playing to various state assessments. As of December 2016, content on each SAT is less predictable than content on the ACT.
ACT and SAT Accommodations for Students with Special Needs
While the scored content is no different, students granted extra time sit in different rooms for the testing. Both ACT and SAT offer rooms for students getting 50% additional time. The SAT omits the equating section for students granted additional time, saving approximately 40 minutes and making total test time exactly 4.5 hours.
Students granted more than 50% extra time arrange with their school to have an “unlimited” time ACT session. For SAT, the “unlimited” time is DOUBLE TIME, and students meet in regular test centers on successive days – a four hour session on Saturday and a four hour session on Sunday.
Both SAT and ACT will allow a reader for certain students, Braille tests for others, and electronic essay inputs for students whose limited motor skills keep them from writing legibly.
Students with extended time no longer have their scores “flagged”. Until 2003, colleges could see which applicants had taken the test under non-standard conditions. Most colleges did not discriminate against those who were granted extended time, but some did. In an effort to protect the wishes of member colleges that wished to retain the “flagging”, the College Board, publishers of the SAT, steadfastly litigated against parents demanding change. In 2002 The College Board settled a lawsuit brought by a Berkeley-based disability rights group and ended flagging in June 2003. The ACT soon followed and ended its flagging in October 2003. At the time just under 5% of SAT testers were granted special accommodation, but, as expected, that percentage has risen since then.
Getting special accommodations can be done through the school or through an MD. Not all who seek consideration are approved. Of the 50,000 who sought ACT special accommodation in 2004, 88% of the requests were honored, according to a now-retired ACT spokesman. The specific percentage of approval rates have never been put in print. Since 2004, more students have sought accommodations for both SAT and ACT, and the percentage awarded accommodation has dropped. ACT is reputed to be harder than SAT to get accommodations for extended time.
Getting accommodations where nothing has been in place from the school is rare. Both ACT and SAT want to see a record of past accommodation, otherwise they demand an evaluation by a medical specialist. Evaluations take a minimum of five hours and many neurologists will demand two days to cover all the testing. They write a report which parents sent to the accommodations divisions of SAT and/or ACT for approval.
Since ACT and SAT have different criteria for approval, and approval for a condition is never guaranteed, a family seeking extended time or some other accommodation should apply to BOTH the ACT and SAT.
Which Test is Better for My Student?
Students with weak vocabulary will be hurt on the CR of the SAT. Someone unable or unwilling to absorb vocabulary who is also a good math person will do better on the ACT.
Students requiring double time test face a VERY arduous SAT. SAT and ACT length will be similar, but the ACT will be done in a student’s school, on her/his schedule, one section per day for four days. These days need not be consecutive.
Students with no trigonometry are slightly hurt on ACT. However a good coach can address this area fairly quickly, and with 2 – 4 hours of extra effort most students can be ready for the ACT trigonometry.
Students flustered by charts and data interpretation will be hurt on ACT.
Students who are not CAREFUL readers will be hurt more on the SAT.
“Good testers” have an advantage on the SAT. This includes students willing to undergo coaching to BECOME good testers. The SAT lends itself more to coaching. Just understanding the guessing advantage alone gives a student an advantage over a good portion of test-takers. And the forced essay on the SAT is likely to yield an advantage for students who can take a short class combined with individualized essay evaluations.
A Suggestion on Test Choice
For students who have ten to fifteen hours to diagnose which test will be better, take two ACTs contained in The Official ACT PrepGuide and two SATs contained in The Official SAT Study Guide. Use the Equating table to judge which test is better and then prep only for that one test.
Students who don’t have the time or inclination to make an ACT vs SAT Diagnosis should prep for the ACT. The SAT is a work in progress, a “moving target” that’s less coachable compared to the tried-and-true ACT.
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.