10 Key Differences Between the SAT and ACT

SAT ACT Differences

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Most people have heard of both the SAT and ACT, but what makes them distinct from each other? In this detailed SAT vs. ACT investigation, we discuss the top 10 differences between the two tests and explain what these differences mean for test-takers. And in closing, we give tips to help you decide which test is right for you.

At first glance, the SAT and ACT seem pretty similar. They are both nationally accredited standardized tests that are common admission requirements for schools in the United States. Taken primarily by high school juniors and seniors, they test proficiency in various skill areas that are important for college success like reading comprehension and problem-solving. Since all US colleges accept scores from either the SAT or the ACT, there’s no advantage of taking one over the other in that department – you can apply to the same schools no matter which test you choose to take!

So, in order to aid your decision, you will have to learn about the actual content of the two tests. Since the SAT’s large-scale redesign in 2016, the tests have more in common than ever. A few similarities:

  • Comparable sections that each appear only once in a predetermined order
    (i.e. Math, Reading, etc.)
  • Wrong answers are not penalized
    (the old SAT used to take ¼ point away for wrong answers)
  • All English/Writing questions are from passage-based reading
    (no more filling in vocabulary blanks on the SAT)
  • Optional essay section, which is scored separately from total score

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, these tests are so similar. It probably doesn’t matter which one I take.” Despite the given comparisons however, there are still numerous ways that the SAT and ACT contrast. For example, the ACT is slightly shorter than the SAT. Furthermore, the time limits and number of questions are different for corresponding sections.

These are by no means the only ways that the SAT and ACT differ! Read on to see what other differences there are and what they ultimately mean for test takers.

1: Importance of Math in Final Score

Is math a strength or a weakness for you? If it’s a strength, then the SAT might be the test for you since your math score will account for half of your total score. On the other hand, if math is a weakness then the ACT might be your best bet because your math score only accounts for one-fourth of your total score. For all you literature buffs out there who struggle with math, that means that your math score is only half as important on the ACT – a significantly smaller amount!

Let’s consider an example where I score in similar percentiles on the SAT and ACT with high performance on all sections besides math:

SAT Score Examples

Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW): 700 (94th percentile)

Math: 480 (27th percentile)

Composite: 1180 (69th percentile)

ACT Score Examples

English: 32 (95th percentile)

Math: 16 (28th percentile)

Reading: 32 (94th percentile)

Science: 30 (94th percentile)

Composite: 28 (89th percentile)

Although it might not be initially intuitive, you can see that even if I were to score in similar percentiles on every section of the SAT and ACT, my composite score percentiles would be radically different, with my final ACT percentile being 20% higher than my final SAT percentile.

Moral of the story? If math isn’t a strength for you, you’ll have a better chance at hitting your goal percentile on the ACT than on the SAT.

2: SAT No Calculator Section

The SAT contains a “No Calculator” math subsection in which – you guessed it – you cannot use a calculator. It is comprised of 20 questions and is the shortest section of the SAT at only 25 minutes long. (The “Calculator” math section is much longer containing 38 questions to be answered in 55 minutes.) The ACT has no such section.

So, if you struggle with solving math quickly and/or without a calculator, the ACT math section would probably treat you better. If you are confident in math, on the other hand, the SAT remains a solid option.

3: Relevant Math Concepts

As far as math content is concerned, both the SAT and the ACT place a large emphasis on algebra. The ACT however, puts much more weight on geometry, which accounts for around 40% of ACT Math, a much larger portion than that of SAT Math which is less than 10%. Further, there is a slightly larger emphasis on trigonometry on the SAT with trig taking up about 7% of the ACT and less than 5% of the SAT.

The ACT also tests a few concepts that won’t be found on the SAT at all, like logarithms, graphs of trigonometric functions, and matrices. So what does this mean? If you’re good at trig functions and geometry, then the ACT is a better choice, whereas if algebra and data analysis are your strengths, then you are likely to do well on SAT Math. It is important to note, however, that these are merely a few factors in your success, as evidenced other parts of this article.

4: Math Formulas Reference Sheet

The SAT provides test takers with a diagram of math formulas, but with the ACT you’re on your own in this respect. The SAT diagram looks like this:

Although all of these references pertain to geometry, which we’ve already seen does not play a major role in SAT math, having the diagram at hand on the test means you won’t have to spend as much time memorizing formulas beforehand. Because the ACT doesn’t give you any formulas on test day, you must memorize all potentially useful formulas before taking the test. So, if you’re worried about forgetting certain geometric formulas, the SAT offers you something to lean on during the pressures of test day.

5: Fill in the Blank Math Questions

If you strongly prefer your math questions to come solely in the multiple choice variety, then you might want to stick with the ACT. Although SAT Math is largely multiple choice, it does include “student-produced response questions” – commonly known as fill in the blanks. This means that you’ll have no answer choices to choose from on these questions. There are 13 total student-produced response questions, which account for 22% of SAT Math. If you find this very intimidating, then the ACT might be the better option for you.

6: Number of Math Answer Choices

The SAT and the ACT also differ in number of math answer choices. While ACT Math gives five possible answer choices per question lettered A-E or F-K, SAT Math gives only four lettered A-D. This means that you are more likely to guess correctly on SAT Math questions (25% chance) than on ACT Math questions (20% chance).

So, if you think you’ll need to do a lot of guessing, the SAT offers a minor advantage.

A tip for guessing:

For blind guesses (as opposed to educated guesses), it is smart to choose one letter and guess that letter every time. The letters toward the middle (i.e. B and C on the SAT, and B C D or G H J on the ACT) are more commonly correct than those on the outskirts and you should select from them when choosing your “guess letter” on test day.

7: Science Section

Perhaps the most major difference between the two exams is the science section; the ACT contains an entire section devoted to science, while the SAT does not. The ACT Science section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. As with the other sections, it counts for one-fourth of your total ACT score. So, if science is your thing, then the ACT might be better for you.

BUT – just because the SAT doesn’t contain a separate science section doesn’t mean that it doesn’t test scientific concepts. The SAT sometimes includes science-based passages and charts in its various sections. There is also an Analysis in Science cross-test subscore, although admittedly most schools will not take these subscores into serious consideration the way they will your ACT Science score.

ALSO – although it is called the “Science” section, ACT Science requires students to employ reading comprehension perhaps more than any other skill. It is not so much about knowledge and memorization of scientific facts and concepts, but about analyzing information provided to test takers on the exam itself.

8: But what about the Reading section?

With all this talk about math and science, you must think we’ve forgotten about reading! Well guess what? We haven’t. There are two key differences between SAT and ACT Reading.

a. Evidence-Support Reading Questions

Evidence-support questions make up a significant portion of SAT Reading, but can’t be found on ACT Reading at all. These types of questions build off questions that come before them and ask for a specific line and paragraph citations as evidence for previous answers.

So, if you’re unsettled by series of related questions, then the ACT might be a better fit for you.

b. Chronological Reading Questions

On the SAT, all reading questions follow a chronological order based on the passage they are referring to, but on the ACT, this is not always the case. As a result, SAT Reading questions are usually easier to follow and as a result, easier to answer than ACT Reading questions. They also help save you time finding the relevant part of the passage(s).

So, if you are worried about reading and answering questions under a time crunch, you might be better suited for the SAT.

9: Essay Content

On both the SAT and ACT, the essay is optional, but the content of the essay on each exam is different.

On the SAT, test takers are given a passage to read and analyze. The essay should dissect the author’s argument using concrete evidence and clear reasoning, and is not based on opinion. In contrast, on the ACT, test takers are given a passage about an issue and are asked to analyze various perspectives on the issue and take their own position.

If you have strong reading comprehension skills and feel comfortable analyzing other peoples’ arguments, then you are well-suited to write an SAT essay. If you are more comfortable with comparing and contrasting perspectives and arguing your own opinion, then the ACT essay is a better option for you.

10: Timing Is Everything

Timing is something that affects everyone differently. If you are confident with answering questions quickly, then you will likely do fine with the timing of the ACT, but if you struggle under time crunches, then the SAT is likely a better option for you.

If you were to spend the same amount of time on every question in each section of the ACT, you’d have 53 seconds/question on the Reading section, 36 seconds/question on the English section, 60 seconds/question on the Math section, and 53 seconds/question on the Science section. You’re might be thinking, “Wow, that’s not very many seconds…”

Under the same assumption for the SAT, you’d have 75 seconds/question on the Reading section, 48 seconds/question on Writing, and around 80 seconds/question on Math.

As you can see, the SAT gives test takes more time per question on all sections. So, if you’re nervous about managing your time successfully on test day, the SAT will be the less stressful option for you.

So, which test is right for you?

There are three great ways to find out.

Take Official SAT and ACT Practice Tests

Instead of just guessing which test you’ll be better at, the best way to decide is to take each test and compare scores. The closest estimates you’ll get will be from official practice tests, which can be found at the websites linked below.

Official SAT Practice Tests: https://blog.prepscholar.com/complete-official-sat-practice-tests-free-links

Official ACT Practice Tests: https://blog.prepscholar.com/complete-official-act-practice-tests-free-links

Make sure you time yourself as you would be timed on the actual exams and set aside long enough periods in a quiet place to take each exam without interruption. It’s best not to take the exams too close together, separating them by a few days.

Once you have taken both practice exams and scored them, you can compare your scores by converting your total ACT score to a total SAT score at https://blog.prepscholar.com/act-to-sat-conversion. Whichever you scored higher on is the one you should spend time preparing for and use for your college applications.

Should I take the SAT or ACT?

1) I am stressed out by tight time constraints. Agree / Disagree

2) I enjoy when questions are arranged chronologically. Agree / Disagree

3) I usually do well on math tests. Agree / Disagree

4) Science is not one of my strengths. Agree / Disagree

5) I am good at solving math problems without a calculator. Agree / Disagree

6) I struggle to remember math formulas. Agree / Disagree

7) I like coming up with my own answers to math problems. Agree / Disagree

8) It’s easier for me to analyze something than to give my own opinion. Agree / Disagree

9) It is easy for me to find evidence to support my answers. Agree / Disagree

10) I struggle with geometry and trigonometry. Agree / Disagree

Now, count up your agrees and disagrees!

If you agreed with most or all of the statements above, then the SAT is the exam for you. On the SAT, you will not have to deal with a science section or much geometry, and you’ll have more time per question.

If you disagreed with most or all of the above statements, then you should take the ACT. With the ACT, you will only have to answer multiple choice questions on the math section, and you’ll get to express your opinion in your essay.

If you got an equal number of agrees and disagrees, then either exam will likely work for you. Taking practice tests, as suggested above can further help you in deciding which exam is a better fit.

Check State Testing Requirements

Finally, be sure to check whether your state has specific testing requirements.

There are 14 states that require the ACT

  • Alabama
  • Hawaii
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

There are 8 states that require the SAT

  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire

Thanks for reading – we hope this article helped you determine whether the SAT or the ACT is a better fit for you!

For questions about the SAT and SAT and for assistance with other aspects of college admission, please contact us.

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