ACT vs SAT

Despite the fact that the ACT and SAT are more similar than ever, key distinctions between the tests still remain. Since colleges don’t really have a preference for one test over the other, high school students should plan to check out both tests before starting extensive prep for either. Choosing the test that aligns best with a particular student’s skills can be helpful but shouldn’t be stressful. About half of PrepMatters students do equally well on either test, so there may not be one test that’s better or worse. But if there is, students will certainly be glad they spent the time to discover it!

What’s the difference between the SAT Reading and ACT Reading sections?
What’s the difference between the SAT Writing and ACT English sections?
What’s the difference between the SAT Math and ACT Math sections?
What is the ACT Science section about?
How does the testing calendar affect my choice?
What are the differences in score reporting policies between the ACT and SAT?
Should I take practice tests for each?


What’s the difference between the SAT Reading and ACT Reading sections?

The most salient difference between the SAT and ACT has always been the pace of the tests, and that difference is even more stark on the new test. Take the reading section, for example: SAT test takers have 65 minutes to negotiate approximately 400 lines of text and 52 questions, while ACT students have only 35 minutes for 350 lines and 40 questions. That breaks down to around 52 seconds per question for the ACT and 75 for the SAT. That’s a whopping 20 extra seconds per question or, put another way, 40% extra time for the SAT! And the ACT Science section is just as paced, if not more so. Students who read quickly are much more at home on the ACT, while those who don’t may never be able to successfully cope with the pace of the ACT, no matter how much they prepare.

While the ACT Reading section is faster, the SAT Reading section tends to be deeper. The ACT readings are generally more concrete and the questions are more literally answered in the passage, many times even using the same words as in the correct answer. In contrast and by design, passages of different textual complexities comprise the SAT reading section: most students will find some passages easier and others certainly more difficult. These more difficult passages tend to be more abstract, employ higher levels of diction, and require students to read quickly but more deeply. On the ACT, a typical student refrain when approaching a difficult question is “Oh, right… I kind of remember that in the passage but I can’t find it.” Complaints on the SAT reading usually sound more like “Ugh… a question about that paragraph? I didn’t really get what they were saying there.”
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What’s the difference between the SAT Math and ACT Math sections?
Besides the pace of the tests, the second historical difference between the tests has always been trickiness or lack thereof. The SAT styled itself a reasoning test, the ACT an assessment test. Although those labels are no longer formally used, they remain quite useful in understanding the differences between the tests – especially the math sections. Now that the SAT encompasses more than Algebra 1 and Geometry, it can feature questions that are difficult because of their advanced content rather than simply because they’re tricky. That being said, old habits die hard. Test writers still delight in presenting students with questions that are worded differently from what they’ve seen in school or those that have a long way and a short way to answer them. The SAT still favors students who are looking for the angle and want to work smarter and not harder.

The math section on the ACT, however, rarely rewards students for seeing a shortcut method, instead rewarding them for having spent the last several years paying attention in math class and knowing how to answer the most commonly asked questions. The questions students face on the ACT math section look more like those seen in school, and students who do well in their math classes typically find themselves well prepared for this section. The ACT features lots of geometry, plenty of algebra 1 and 2 and some harder precalculus level questions at the end of the section. While the redesigned SAT now does include questions on more advanced topics, those are few in comparison to its primary focus: linear equations, systems & inequalities and data analysis & modeling. The ACT math section is thus a more complete assessment of most students’ high school math curricula.
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What’s the difference between the SAT Writing and ACT English sections?

The English section of the new SAT has received the greatest overhaul in its recent revision and now is a nearly identical to the ACT English section. That means that it’s less useful for students deciding which test to take. For what it’s worth, the English section is one of the most consistent sections on either test and thus typically the easiest for students to improve with practice. So no matter which test students choose, the English section will likely be just fine!
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What is the ACT Science section about?
Those who love (or hate) science class in school may be leaning towards (or away from) the ACT based on the presence of its Science section, but that would be a mistake. The ACT Science section actually doesn’t test students on science. Just like the Reading section doesn’t ask questions about The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath, the Science section doesn’t test a student’s knowledge of biology, chemistry or physics. The ACT is a standardized test and as such can’t depend too much on students’ high school curricula. Were the test writers being more honest, they might have titled this section the Reading Charts & Graphs section, because that’s exactly what students need to do. The real challenge of the ACT science section is twofold: working at the fast pace required and dealing with the fact that the questions can be answered from the given information without really understanding the experiment or what the data mean.
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How does the testing calendar affect my choice?
As the content of the tests grows more similar, test administrations and policies play an increasingly important role in determining which test is a better mach. The better test may be the one that aligns most helpfully with a student’s personal calendar, affording him or her the opportunity to thoroughly prepare yet also be well rested (and hopefully not too stressed out). While the SAT and ACT are offered 7 and 6 times per year respectively, they are often offered during different months. Students should look at their junior year calendars with a view to what works best for them. Do they have time in the summer before junior year to begin preparing? Is wrestling season totally out? Is the SAT offered the week of the big school play? Students who are taking AP exams or SAT Subject Tests in the spring should also think about how those dates may limit their availability for an SAT or ACT.
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What are the differences between the score reporting policies between the ACT and SAT?
Another important policy is the way in which the different tests handle score cancellation and deletion. While the SAT allows students to cancel scores before the test results are known (by the Wednesday following the test to be exact), the ACT allows students to delete scores, but only after the test has been scored and, thus, there are scores to delete. In practice, this important factor strongly favors the ACT since students can complete all of their testing and decide which scores to retain or delete depending upon how they scored. Knowing scores can always be deleted is often crucial in reducing test anxiety so that students can perform their best on test day.
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Should I take practice tests for each?
In the final analysis, there’s one sure-fire way to know which test is better: take practice tests. Students may not embrace the proposition of giving up a weekend day each to a practice SAT and ACT, but that investment of time is beggared by the potential time-savings that results from finding the right test. Additionally, students are the ones who are doing all the heavy lifting here – attending sessions, doing homework and taking practice tests – so their feedback is essential to the process. In many cases, scores on the tests may be equivalent but students preferences may not be. Armed with the experience of having taken the tests, the students themselves are often in the best position to decide which test is better – or sometimes which is the lesser of two evils!
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