The Differences between the SAT and the ACT

ACT and SAT exams are both used to determine a student’s merit for scholarships and determining a college’s decision to accept or reject an applicant. While only one score is needed, students may opt to take both exams and submit the scores of the exam they perform better in. The SAT test was re-designed in 2016, resulting in more similarities between the two exams than in the past. However, there are still many differences between the two; if students decide to only take one exam, these differences may influence that decision.

#1: Structural differences

The ACT and SAT have somewhat of the same structure but are broken down a little differently. The ACT has English, Math, Reading, Science and an optional writing section. The SAT is broken down by Reading, Writing and Language, Math (two sections; one with a calculator and the other without) and an optional essay component. The major difference is that the SAT does not have the science component that the ACT does, which may appeal to students who are less proficient in that area.

#2: Basic differences

The ACT contains more questions and is taken in less time than the SAT, and each are scored differently. The ACT is scored on a 1-36 scale, while the SAT has a total score range of 400-1600. While there is a writing component, it does not affect the final score on either test. The cost of the exams is only slightly different, with the ACT at $42.50 without the writing, and the SAT at $46 without writing. Writing included is $58.50 for the ACT and $60 for the SAT.

#3: Length of time

Students who loathe the time crunch on exams might prefer the SAT, which allows for more time in the Reading and Math sections. Since the SAT has a section that requires students to toss aside the calculator, each question allows for thirty more seconds in that section.

#4: Science section

Students who do not excel in science may want to opt for the SAT exam, which does not contain a science section. If science is an area of expertise, students should pick the ACT exam, which devotes an entire section to a science component. However, the SAT does contain scientific elements in other areas, it just differs in that an entire section is not devoted to the topic.

#6: Math matters

Both tests have a section devoted to math and a large focus on algebra, but the ACT does have more of a focus on geometry, specifically 35-45 percent of the math section focusing on it. If a student fares better in algebra and data analysis, they will most likely excel more in the SAT, whereas students who prefer trig functions and geometry might want to choose the ACT.

Also, the SAT offers a reference guide for math formulas that is not included in the ACT; this guide consists of 12 geometry formulas and three laws. Students with less likelihood of memorizing these formulas should consider this factor when choosing which exam is better suited for them.

#7: Lose the calculator

The SAT math section has one part that requires students to not use a calculator. While students do receive more time per question, if they tend to fare better with a calculator, they may score better on the ACT. Keep in mind that both tests have math questions that can all be answered without a calculator; at the end of the day it just matters how well students do with or without it.

#8: Overall score

How good a student excels in math will reflect the overall scores of the exams depending on which they choose. For the ACT, math only accounts for one fourth of the total overall score. For the SAT, math is one half of the overall score. If math isn’t something a student fares well in, the ACT may be a better option.

#9: Reading

The SAT has a larger focus on pinpointing supporting areas of a text that support answers in a reading. This focus is completely absent from the ACT. The questions follow a chronological order in the reading section of the SAT. For the ACT, the questions are completely random and will not necessarily follow the order of the reading. This results in the questions in the SAT exam being easier to follow than the ACT.

#10: Essay section

In the SAT and ACT, the writing section is optional and does not reflect the final score. However, the section is very different in that the SAT requires a student to support the argument of an author with evidence and reasoning. The ACT asks a student for an opinion based answer, where they can argue their own point.

Which test is better? There is not a simple answer since that is entirely dependent on a student’s strengths and weaknesses. The best way to make a determination is for students to take practice tests for both exams and decide based on the results.


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