College counselors are inundated with one particular question. Which exam should a student choose, the ACT or the SAT. The answer is simple, either one. Both are accepted by a vast majority of schools in this and adjacent countries. Both exams include core Math, English and Reading sections as well as an optional Writing section. The ACT has a science section that does not appear on the SAT (either the old exam or the newly revamped exam). That science section does not specifically test on the students overall knowledge of science but rather their problem solving skills determined by the students ability to read tables and graphs, make assumptions about scientific situations, or evaluate scientific hypotheses. Neither exam penalizes the student for wrong answers.
The exams are both taken by millions of student annually. What was once a geographical issue with the Western U.S. and parts of the east taking the SAT and the New England states and remaining Eastern U.S. and Central U.S. taking the ACT, today there is no such demarcation.
ACT versus SAT: Timing
The ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete without the essay, and 3 hours and 35 minutes with the essay.
The SAT takes 3 hours to complete without the essay, and 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay.
Here’s the full breakdown for each section:
|English (ACT); Writing and Language (SAT)||45 minutes
|Essay (optional)||40 minutes
Of course, this does not include time for filling out paperwork, instructions, or breaks. All in all, you’ll probably spend at least 4 to 5 hours in the testing center. So, bring your snacks! Check out our breakdowns for SAT Test Day and ACT Test Day for more details on what your morning is going to look like.
One thing you should notice is the time allotted per question to complete the exam. Across the board, you have about 50 seconds per question o the ACT and 1:10 per question on the SAT. SAT questions do on average take a bit longer to parse through as their grammar is more complex.
English/Writing & Language
When you take a peek at the English section on the ACT and the Writing & Language section on the SAT, you’ll find that they look virtually identical. Not only that, they test many of the same concepts (although we do feel these concepts are tested in a bit more of a nuanced fashion on the new SAT than the ACT, with trickier answer choice phrasing).
Still, here are a couple differences you should be aware of:
- Reading Level: All of the passages on the ACT English section are at a relatively easy reading level (say, about 9th grade). The passages on the SAT Writing & Language section can vary in difficulty, however, from early high school to early college.
ACT Math and SAT Math:
- Math Level: The new SAT has upped it’s game as far as math difficulty goes: you’ll see some questions on advanced math and trigonometry. The ACT includes more questions in the containing Algebra II and Trig. All of the trig knowledge tested on either the SAT or ACT is at a very basic level. Even if you haven’t taken trig/math analysis, you could teach yourself what you need to know for the exams.
- Calculator Usage: On the ACT math section, you can use a calculator on every single question whereas the SAT includes a 25 minute no-calculator section with 20 questions. The math here is meant to be easy enough to do by hand, but keep in mind you might want to be brushing up on your mental math skills. If you are a whiz with numbers who can eyeball math problems and do calculations in your head, you might be at an advantage on the SAT over many of your peers.
- Multiple Choice vs Grid-ins: The ACT Math test is all multiple choice, meaning you’ll always be able to have at least a 20% chance of getting the answer right, even if you have no idea what you are doing. The SAT Math test is 80% multiple choice and 20% grid-ins, meaning you have to fill in the blanks with your own answers on these ones.
The ACT Reading and SAT Reading sections look pretty similar on the surface. But there are some important differences to observe:
- Number of passages: There are four long passages (700-900ish words) to read on the ACT and five longish passages (500 to 750 words) on the SAT. Or rather, there are 4 discrete reading sections on the ACT and 5 on the SAT. Both tests include one set of paired passages for you to compare, but count these as a single passage.
- Passage complexity: The reading level of the passages on the ACT is pretty standard across the board (about a 10th to 11th grade level). On the SAT, you’ll find a range from 9th grade to early college.
- There are some further differences in question types between the SAT and ACT, including the SAT’s use of a special question type the College Board calls Command of Evidence. Command of evidence questions ask test takers to prove their responses based on the passage or graph provided. To get these questions right, you need to find evidence from the passage that proves your choice is the correct one.
The Science section is unique to the ACT; there’s nothing like it on the SAT.
Just because you are good at science doesn’t make this the right choice exam. You really should know that there is very little actual science knowledge tested on the ACT Science section. You’ll see a handful of questions that do require you to bring in outside knowledge, but most of the questions have to do with your ability to read tables and graphs, make assumptions about scientific situations, or evaluate scientific hypotheses. I suggest you take a look at the example ACT Science questions on the ACT website before making any decisions about your suitability for this section.
Although the SAT doesn’t have a discrete Science section; it’s worth noting that the new SAT places a much greater emphasis on interpreting tables and graphs across all of the sections. You might think of this as their response to the ACT Science test. Being able to interpret data will help you on both tests.
On the ACT essay, you’ll be given three different perspectives on a debatable issue and be asked to evaluate them and present your own perspective. For those of you who excel at debate and/or coming up with supporting examples on the spot, you might be naturally suited for the ACT essay.
On the SAT essay, you’ll be given a 650-700 word passage to read. Then you’ll write an essay explaining how the author builds his or her argument in the passage. The key difference here is that the SAT doesn’t care at all about your own opinion or your own arguments; it just wants you to evaluate the arguments in the passage. This means that if you excel at analyzing readings in your English class, you might find the SAT essay to be a better fit for you.
ACT: The ACT uses what’s called a composite score to give students an overall ACT score. Your overall composite score ranges from 1 to 36 and is an average of your scores on each of the multiple choice sections. You’ll also receive your individual section scores, which range from 1 to 36 as well, but for most colleges, it’s the composite score that counts.
So, for example, let’s say you received a 25 on English, 32 on Math, 28 on Reading, and 24 on Science. You’re overall composite score would be (25+32+28+25)/4 = 27.5, rounded to the nearest whole number, which would be 28. (It’s icing on the cake when you get to benefit from the rounding up!)
SAT: The SAT is scored on a range between 400 and 1600. This is based on adding your Reading/Writing score from 200-800 and Math score from 200-800 together. Note that even though there are three main multiple choice sections to the SAT-Reading, Writing, and Math-Reading and Writing are combined into one score out of 800. This is different from the old SAT, on which students received a score out of 800 on each of the three sections, meaning the highest score on the old SAT was 2400.
A majority of schools super score the SAT. Super scoring is where the best sections of multiple exams are put together to create the best overall score. Some, but very few schools super score the ACT.
SO, which one should you take?
The ACT might be best if:
- You are really fast at your work. You generally don’t have trouble running out of time on tests at school and you are a fast reader. The ACT, in many ways, is still a more straightforward test, provided you can finish it in time.
- You like science and are good at interpreting data and trends. While the exam isn’t actually testing your overall knowledge of science it doesn’t hurt to be interested in what you are reading. Students who may not be a fan of science, but are really good at seeing the trends in graphs and tables and being able to deduce the next step in a process are also likely to be successful at ACT Science.
- You are glued to your calculator in math class. The prospect of the no-calculator section and the grid-ins on the SAT might be a bit more intimidating for you.
The SAT might be easier for you than the ACT if:
- You’re not a fast reader, but you’re a good reader. You can understand readings pretty well when you take your time. While you may not be able to take all the time you’d like on the SAT, you will encounter more complex passages on the SAT vs ACT. This combined with the slightly shorter passages on the SAT and the slightly longer time period you have to answer questions on the SAT could make the SAT a better choice.
- You’re good at mental math. You’ll be able to breeze through the no-calculator section with confidence while other students sweat.
- You’re good at reading between the lines and finding traps. The SAT, while not as tricky as it was in the past, still has some tricks up its sleeve. And the better you are at the standardized test game, the better you’ll be at the SAT.
Good luck and remember you can take exams multiple times. Most schools only require you to send your best score so there is no penalty for taking it more than once to get familiarized with the process and ramping up your score.