Most high school students who plan to go to college must take either the SAT or the ACT, or both. Whether you are taking both or only one, it is important to know the differences between the tests so that you are better prepared for the tests. Familiarity with the SAT and ACT is one of the keys to performing well. Having instructed students in test-taking strategies for both of these tests for the past six years, I am quite familiar with the SAT and ACT.
Traditionally, Ivy League schools and schools on the east and west coasts prefer to see scores from the SAT, while mid-western schools accept the ACT. Research the schools you are interested in attending in order to find out which test they prefer or if they will accept either. If the school you wish to attend accepts either, you can submit scores from both tests, or choose the one you will perform better on.
The SAT and ACT are scored differently. On the SAT, you receive one point for each correct answer, lose a quarter of a point for each incorrect answer, and receive zero points for no answer. This means that you should not answer a question if you are just making a random guess. Answer the questions you are sure of and leave blank the ones you have no idea how to answer. If you can confidently eliminate two answer choices, then guess between the remaining three. The ACT awards one point per correct answer and zero points for both incorrect answers and blanks. This means you should fill in an answer for every question, even if it’s a random guess, as you will not be penalized if your answer is incorrect. Whenever possible, though, try to make a more educated guess by eliminating incorrect answer choices.
On the SAT, you will receive a score in each of the three areas tested, Writing, Math, and Critical Reading, ranging from 200-800. These three scores are then added together to give you an overall score, the highest of which is 2400. On the ACT, you may earn up to a 36 on each of the four tests: English, Math, Reading, and Science. These four scores are averaged, so your composite score is out of 36, also. The Writing score (essay) is reported separately for the ACT, while it is included in the SAT score.
As you may have noted from the information in the previous paragraph, the Science test is unique to the ACT. The ACT science test has seven passages from the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space science. The ACT science section tests your ability to read and interpret graphs, charts, and diagrams, as well as critique experimental design and compare differing viewpoints on a topic. Very little prior knowledge of science is necessary to do well on this test, so don’t worry if you haven’t taken many science classes or if you do not typically do well in science class.
Both the SAT and ACT include Math tests. The ACT Math test includes trigonometry questions, but the SAT does not. Math questions on both tests are mainly word problems, so it is important for you to be able to translate the words into math. All ACT math questions are multiple choice. Most SAT math questions are also multiple choice, but some require the student to produce and grid-in an answer without the benefit of choices. Specific rules must be followed when you grid-in these answers, so become familiar with these before test day.
Reading also appears on both the SAT and ACT. The SAT Critical Reading test includes sentence completions (for which you must know the infamous SAT vocabulary words), short passages, and long passages. The ACT Reading test only contains long passages, of which there are four. The reading passages on the SAT may come from the subject areas of humanities, natural science, or social science. The ACT has one of each of those passages, plus a prose fiction passage. On the ACT, the passages will always appear in this order: prose fiction, social science, humanities, natural science. The type of passages you receive on the SAT are random.
The SAT Writing test involves both an essay and multiple choice questions. The ACT Writing test is just an essay, and the English test is the multiple choice part. The SAT and ACT essays are similar in that you must write a persuasive essay on a given topic. The ACT prompts tend to be easier to write about because the topics are more familiar and concrete, while the SAT prompts tend toward more abstract ideas. Essays on both are scored similarly: two readers each assign a score from one to six and the two scores are added together. The multiple choice questions in the SAT Writing are comparable to the ACT English test. Both test the same concepts, but in different formats.
Another aspect of the tests to compare is the timing and arrangement of the parts. The SAT begins with the 25-minute essay, then proceeds through six twenty-five minute multiple choice sections (one of which is experimental) of math, reading, and writing, then you have two twenty-minute sections (reading and math), and last is a 10-minute multiple choice writing section. The ACT is arranged as follows, English (45 minutes), Math (60 minutes), Reading (35 minutes), Science (35 minutes), and Writing (30 minutes). So, the SAT is the longer test, but divided up into shorter sections. On the ACT, you will only encounter each subject once, whereas on the SAT, you will encounter each subject multiple times.
Finally, the difficulty of each test must be discussed. First, keep in mind that difficulty is relative. You might find something to be easy that someone else finds difficult, or the reverse could be true. In general, the ACT is considered to be easier than the SAT. The SAT requires more critical thinking and is more heavily weighted with verbal skills (reading and writing). You must decide which test you will perform better on. Take several practice tests for each to determine which you will score better on and to become familiar with each test before you sit for the official test(s).