Colleges that require the SAT or ACT as part of their application procedures accept either test equally. Both the SAT and ACT are meant to measure academic ability and college readiness, but they differ in format, content, and overall structure.
Note: this article is a series in the PrepScholar 2016 Students' Encyclopedia, a free students' and parents' SAT / ACT guide that provides encyclopedic knowledge. Read all the articles here!
Historically, students who lived on the East and West coasts tended to take the SAT and students in the Midwest took the ACT. Now the number of students who take these tests is approximately equal, with the number of ACT test-takers surpassing that of SAT test-takers for the first time in 2011.
Since colleges consider both tests to have equal validity, students benefit from choosing the one on which they can gain the stronger score. To determine which test better suits their abilities and test-taking styles, students can familiarize themselves with the differences between the SAT and ACT. Additionally, students can take official practice tests and use them to predict their probable score range.
Differences in Format
The SAT has three main sections, Critical Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. These sections are divided into 10 subsections, which are interspersed in various order between test administrations. Each subsection is 10, 20, or 25 minutes long.
- There are two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section in SAT Critical Reading.
- There are two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section in SAT Math.
- There is one 25 minute section for the essay and one 25 minute and one 10 minute section of multiple choice in SAT Writing.
- There is one 25 minute SAT experimental section. This section is unscored and could be Critical Reading, Mathematics, or Writing.
The SAT consists of a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes, plus additional time for instructions and three 5 minute breaks. While the SAT is divided into ten subsections, the ACT tests its four subjects in four long sections. Once a section is complete, students will not return to it during the test.
The ACT has four main sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Students may also choose to take an optional 30 minute essay. While the order of SAT sections is unpredictable, ACT sections are always presented in this order, with the optional essay given at the end of the test. The sections are timed as follows:
- ACT English is 45 minutes.
- ACT Mathematics is 60 minutes.
- ACT Reading is 35 minutes.
- ACT Science is 35 minutes.
- The optional essay is 30 minutes.
Unlike the SAT, there is no experimental section on the ACT. It comprises 2 hours and 55 minutes, or 3 hours and 25 minutes with the essay. While the multiple choice questions on the SAT have five options and a 0.25 point deduction for wrong answers, ACT questions have four answer choices and no penalty for incorrect responses.
For students deciding between the SAT and ACT, the above mentioned differences in format may be important factors in their choice. Students who prefer to focus on one subject at a time may benefit from the structure of the ACT, while those who feel energized switching between topics may prefer the experience of taking the SAT.
Since anxiety is common around these admissions tests, students may also consider which exam structure helps relieve their stress. Some may prefer to divide the test into shorter sections that are finished in less time, as on the SAT. Others may benefit from the predictable nature of the ACT and dislike the variables, such as order of passages and the experimental section, that are part of the SAT.
Both the SAT and ACT are similar in that they are strictly timed. Students may not return to a section after the allotted time has come to an end. The following information suggests a general amount of time per question. However, the actual time given to each question likely varies by each question's difficulty level, with easy questions taking less time and difficult questions requiring more.
- SAT Critical Reading: 54 seconds per question
- SAT Math: 67 seconds per question
- SAT Writing: 43 seconds per question
- ACT English: 36 seconds per question
- ACT Math: 60 seconds per question
- ACT Reading: 53 seconds per question
- ACT Science: 53 seconds per question
Students typically report having more difficulty with timing on the ACT. Students who struggle to answer questions at a fast pace may perform better on the SAT. Since the ACT features four long sections, students have reported that they have a difficult time recovering if they encounter time management problems within a particular section. Timing and pacing are additional considerations for students when determining the suitability of the SAT and ACT for their college planning.
Differences in Content and Skills
Both the SAT and ACT purport to measure the skills of problem solving and literacy needed for college level courses, but they do so in different ways. The SAT has three main sections, the Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing, while the ACT has four: Reading, Mathematics, English, and Science. The SAT Critical Reading is comparable to the ACT Reading, SAT Math is similar to ACT Math, and SAT Writing is analogous to ACT English. The ACT Science section is unique and has no counterpart on the SAT.
While the aforementioned sections test similar skills, they have key differences in content and question types. By familiarizing themselves with these differences, students can further determine the fit of each test with their testing style and academic goals.
SAT Critical Reading and ACT Reading Comparison
Both the SAT Critical Reading and ACT Reading sections test students' reading comprehension and understanding of vocabulary. Both sections feature passage-based questions that ask students to analyze prose, make inferences, interpret details, glean the meaning of vocabulary in context, and determine author tone and perspective. Preparation for these sections includes review of literary terms, like theme, symbol, and simile, and practice with skimming text for key information and details.
The main difference between the SAT and ACT in their reading sections is the SAT's emphasis on high level vocabulary words. The SAT features 19 sentence completion questions, which often require students to understand the meaning of difficult vocabulary.
The ACT, on the other hand, asks questions that focus on vocabulary in context. These types of questions, which also appear on the SAT's passage-based questions, ask about relatively common words that may have multiple meanings in various contexts. Students with a strong vocabulary or who enjoy studying high level words may prefer the SAT, while students who respond to straightforward wording may perform better on the ACT.
The SAT Critical Reading is divided into two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section, with the possibility of an additional 25 minute experimental section. Each section begins with 6 to 8 sentence completions, followed by passage-based questions. The ACT Reading is one 35 minute section that features four passages, or five with a paired passage exercise. The passages always come from prose fiction or literary narrative, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and humanities, in that order, and are followed by 10 questions. As with the overall structure of the ACT, its Reading section is consistent and predictable, a feature that may reduce test-taking anxiety for some students.
SAT Mathematics and ACT Mathematics Comparison
Both the SAT Math and ACT Math test concepts in pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, probability, and statistics. The ACT additionally tests trigonometry, as well as, occasionally, matrices, complex numbers, and conic sections. Both SAT Math and ACT Math ask students to solve single and multi-step problems, often by combining concepts from multiple fields of study, and to interpret data from charts and graphs.
In addition to testing more advanced math concepts, the ACT requires students to memorize any needed formulas or facts. The SAT, on the other hand, presents students with formulas to measure area, volume, and circumference, as well as several facts related to geometry at the beginning of each math section. Both SAT and ACT Math sections allow the use of calculators.
The SAT Math asks 44 multiple choice questions and 10 student-produced questions, while the ACT Math asks 60 multiple choice questions. The SAT is divided into two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section. ACT Math is presented in one 60 minute section.
Students who consider math to be their strength and have progressed into high school trigonometry may prefer the ACT, because it both tests more advanced concepts and requires stamina over one longer section. For students who feel uneasy about 60 multiple choice questions in a row, the SAT may be a better choice.
SAT Writing and ACT English Comparison
Both the SAT Writing and ACT English test students' understanding of the rules of English grammar and the organization of ideas within paragraphs. SAT Writing includes a mandatory 25 minute essay, which accounts for about 30% of students' Writing score. On the ACT, the essay is optional and does not get factored into the English section or composite score.
SAT Writing asks 49 multiple choice in one 25 minute section and one 10 minute. ACT English asks 75 multiple choice questions in one 45 minute section. Its questions always refer to five passages, while the SAT asks about a combination of individual sentences and paragraphs.
Both sections require an understanding of grammar, usage, diction, punctuation, parallel structure, and number agreement. Students must be able to identify errors within sentences and to choose appropriate revisions to correct them. Both sections also ask students to rearrange sentences within paragraphs to improve the flow and sequencing of ideas.
The ACT, in particular, focuses on these skills of organization and grammar within the context of longer passages. It does not ask about individual sentences, like the SAT does, but instead focuses its questions around paragraphs and passages. The SAT, on the other hand, asks "identifying sentence errors" and "improving sentences" questions that are entirely focused on individual sentences. Only its "improving paragraphs" questions resemble the ACT's passage-based grammar questions. Given these differences, students can determine where their strengths lie, whether they be in identifying grammar rules based on a single sentence or in rearranging the structure of and ideas within longer passages.
Only the ACT features a Science section, though the SAT Critical Reading may have a passage derived from the field of natural sciences. The ACT Science section is 35 minutes long and features seven passages. Three of these passages feature data representation, three present research summaries, and one discusses conflicting viewpoints. The scientific concepts tested on the ACT Science are generally basic and may refer to biology, earth science, chemistry, or physics, along with some elementary math.
ACT Science questions often ask students to interpret data, compare scientific opinions, and understand and evaluate experimental designs. While the questions are related to scientific opinions and experiments, they are said to test skills of reading comprehension more so than specific content knowledge of science. While students who excel in science may prefer the ACT over the SAT because of this section, they would benefit from understanding that many test experts liken ACT Science to a reading test rather than to a traditional science test.
SAT Essay and Optional ACT Essay Comparison
Besides the presence of a Science section on the ACT, the essay is another major difference between the SAT and ACT. The 25 minute SAT essay is mandatory and always comes at the beginning of the exam. The 30 minute ACT essay is optional and, if selected, is administered as the last section. While the SAT essay is part of a student's Writing and composite score, the ACT essay score is not factored in.
Prompts for the SAT essay are often abstract, philosophical, and/or related to a social issue. They generally begin with a quote or excerpt from a work of prose, followed by a question to elicit the test-taker's opinion. Test-takers are asked to present their point of view and support it with examples from their reading, studies, experience, or observations. Most SAT experts advise students to use a 5 paragraph structure, provide three distinct examples, and choose a strong position, rather than a neutral one, in order to gain a high score. SAT essays are graded by two readers and receive a score between 2 and 12.
Sample SAT Essay Prompt
The ACT essay also asks test-takers to develop and support their point of view, but the prompts are generally considered to be less abstract than SAT prompts and more grounded in students' experience. ACT prompts are frequently related to students' experience in school and may elicit test-takers' thoughts on education and learning.
Sample ACT Essay Prompt
Students who consider writing to be their strength may appreciate that the SAT essay is a part of their overall score. At the same time, they must consider what date they plan to take the SAT, as the redesigned SAT, set to begin in March of 2016, will feature a significantly different essay section.
Deciding Between the SAT and ACT
By researching the differences in content, structure, and question types between the SAT and ACT, students can gain insight into which test better aligns with their skills and test-taking style. Since colleges give both tests equal consideration, students benefit from choosing the one on which they can achieve a higher score.
Students can retake either test several times to improve their scores. Colleges differ in their policies towards test scores and score reports. Some may require that students send all of their results from every testing date, while others allow students to select which score reports are sent. A number of selective colleges require SAT Subject Tests along with the general SAT or solely the ACT, a policy which may constitute another important practical consideration for students when deciding between the two.
By researching the differences between the two tests and the standardized testing policies of their colleges of interest, along with taking official SAT and ACT practice tests, students can determine which admissions test better suits their academic strengths and overall approach to the college application process.
The SAT has undergone major revisions and will debut a redesigned version in March of 2016. The new SAT will resemble the ACT in several ways. For one, the SAT essay will be made optional and relocated to the end of the test. Instead of the current 25 minutes, the essay section will be 50 minutes and will ask students to analyze an argument made by a provided passage.
Like the ACT, the new SAT will ask about grammar and vocabulary within the context of passages. Sentence completion questions will be eliminated, and vocabulary questions will focus on easy and medium level words within the context of paragraphs and passages. The new SAT will also resemble the ACT by having four answer choices on multiple choice questions instead of five and by using rights-only scoring that does not deduct points for incorrect answers.
The ACT is also undergoing some changes, although not as dramatic as the SAT. Its essay section will be lengthened to 40 minutes and will ask students to evaluate various perspectives on an issue and develop their own argument. Like the SAT, the ACT Reading will feature paired passages, which students will be asked to compare and contrast. On the ACT Science, some students will encounter six passages, while others will find the usual seven. Most ACT experts that the test has been getting more challenging and fast-paced in recent years. Because of this apparent increase in the level of rigor, students may find the best representation of the official ACT in practice tests derived from recent years.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.