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SAT vs. ACT- what's the difference?

JUN 01, 2019

One of the required aspects of your college application is your Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Testing (ACT) results.

The purpose of these test results is to measure each applicant's academic ability comparative to the rest of the application pool - to see how you stand out academically.

You have the option of two tests, which can cause some confusion. Which one?

However, you need to submit your results for at least one, the SAT or the ACT, it’s not essential or necessary to take both.

Play to your strengths

Understanding the differences between the tests will help you play to your strengths when choosing a test. This is key to acing your college application. Some of the more prominent divergences between the tests are:

1) Time Per Question

The SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT does. The chart below shows the differences in time per question:

Header ACT SAT
Reading 53 sec/question 75 sec/question
English/Writing 36 sec/question 48 sec/question
Math 60 sec/questionNo Calculator: 75 sec/question, Calculator: 87 sec/question
Science 53 sec/question N/A

As you can see, the SAT offers more time per question on all sections of the exam.

Although the test time for both exams are virtually the same, because the SAT has one less section, you are able to spend more time answering the questions.

2) Science Section

Another major difference has to do with the science section.

The ACT contains an entire section devoted to science which contains 40 questions and lasts for 35 minutes.

Like the other three ACT sections, Science constitutes 1/4th of your total ACT score.

If you’re a student interested in STEM and love the idea of having an entire section focused on scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses, the ACT may be a better fit for you.

On the SAT, you’ll occasionally come across questions dealing with scientific passages, data, and charts on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections however, there is not one section solely focusing on applying this concept.

3) No Calculator Math Section

Unlike the ACT for which you may use a calculator on all Math questions, the SAT contains a Math No Calculator subsection which you can't use a calculator for. Consisting of 20 questions, the No Calculator subsection is only 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT.

However, it's important to note that for both the ACT and SAT, you can technically solve all math questions without a calculator. So, really, the No Calculator questions aren't all that different from Calculator questions. The No Calculator questions are meant to be easier to solve without a calculator and are thus generally more reasoning based than arithmetic heavy.

4) Math Concepts

The ACT and SAT both have a big emphasis on algebra. But the ACT also tests a couple of concepts that the SAT doesn’t focus on as much.

The ACT has a much larger focus on geometry, which makes up about 35-45 percent of ACT Math. Geometry accounts for less than 10% of SAT Math questions. In addition, trigonometry accounts for about 7% of the ACT but less than 5% of the SAT, so there's a slightly larger emphasis of trig on the ACT than there is on the SAT.

The ACT also tests a few concepts that the SAT doesn’t test at all. These include things such as matrices, graphs of trig functions, and logarithms.

It’s important to understand what kind of math you understand and what you need to brush up on before taking either exam, as there is quite an assortment of topics on both the SAT and ACT.

5) Math Formulas Guide

The SAT provides you with a diagram of math formulas, whereas the ACT does not.

Before the two SAT Math subsections, you'll be given a diagram containing 12 geometry formulas and three laws, similar to the one below.

Body Screenshot Sat Math Formulas

Although all of these formulas and laws pertain to geometry (which doesn’t actually appear much on the test), having this diagram handy means you won’t need to spend any time memorizing formulas beforehand.

Unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn’t give you any formulas on test day, meaning you must memorize all potential formulas before taking the test.

6) Math in Final Score

How big of a role will Math play in your final score?

On the ACT, Math accounts for one-fourth of your total score (your Math section score is averaged with your other three section scores).

On the SAT, however, Math accounts for half of your total score, making it twice as important on the SAT!

7) Number of Answer Choices on Math

The two tests also differ in the number of answer choices they give you on Math. Both the SAT and ACT Math sections are predominantly multiple choice.

But while ACT Math gives you five possible answer choices (A-E or F-K) for each question, SAT Math only gives you four (A-D).

As a reminder, both tests use rights-only scoring, meaning you’ll never lose a point for an incorrect answer. So if you were to guess on an SAT Math question, you’d have a 25% chance of getting the question right. But if you were to guess on an ACT Math question, you’d have only a 20% chance of getting it right.

8) Grid-In Math Questions

If you love multiple choice, especially when it comes to math questions, you may want to stick with the ACT.

The SAT, though mostly multiple choice, contains student-produced response questions, or grid-ins, which are math questions for which you must fill in your own answer. Which means you’ll have no answer choices from which to choose on these questions!

9) Evidence-Support Reading Questions

Evidence-support questions are a big part of SAT Reading but are entirely absent on ACT Reading.

These questions build off of the questions that come before them and ask you to cite specific lines or paragraphs as evidence for your answer to a previous question.

Evidence questions can be somewhat tricky, especially if you’re not sure where you found your answer in the passage.

10) Chronological Reading Questions

On SAT Reading, all questions follow a chronological order or in the order of the passage to which they refer. But on ACT Reading, questions can flow randomly and do not routinely follow the order of the content in the passages.

As a result, SAT Reading questions are generally easier to follow and thus easier to answer than ACT Reading questions.

Chronologically ordered questions can also save you time on the SAT, as you won’t need to search the entire passage for the area to which a question is referring.

11) Essay Content

The last major difference between the two tests deals with essay content.

On both the ACT and SAT, the essay component is “optional”; however, what you must write about differs depending on whether you're taking the SAT or ACT.

On the SAT, you'll be given a passage, which you must read and then analyze. Your essay will dissect the author's argument using evidence and reasoning. In other words, you will not be giving your own opinion.

On the ACT Writing section, you'll read a short passage about an issue and then analyze the different perspectives on this issue. But unlike the SAT Essay, you'll also give your own opinion on the issue here.

Which essay type is easier for you depends on what you're better at and more comfortable with writing.

With the SAT, you'll need to have good reading comprehension skills in order to fully realize the strengths and weaknesses of the author's argument.

On the other hand, with the ACT, you need to be able to effectively compare and contrast different perspectives on an issue as well as give ample evidence to support your opinion.

Need help getting ready for the SAT or ACT? Learn more about our SAT and ACT Tutoring Services and how we can help you acheive the score you need to get into your dream university.

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