What is the ACT & SAT Test for?
The ACT/SAT is an entrance exam used by most colleges and universities to make admissions decisions. It is a multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test administered by ACT/SAT, Inc.
The purpose of these tests is to measure a high school student’s readiness for college and provide colleges with common set of data that can be used to compare all applicants. College admissions officers will review standardized test scores alongside your high school GPA, the classes you took in high school, letters of recommendation from teachers or mentors, extracurricular activities, admissions interviews, and personal essays. How important ACT/SAT scores are in the college application process varies from school to school.
Overall, the higher you score on the ACT and/or SAT, the more doors will be open with offers for scholarships.
ACT vs. SAT: How Different Are They
At a glance, the two tests aren’t that different. As mentioned on the official websites of ACT and SAT, both the tests are nationally recognized standardized tests used as a part of standard admission requirements for US schools. Catering primarily to high school juniors and seniors, each test measures students’ proficiency in various skills — such as problem solving and reading comprehension—that are necessary for college success.
Because all US colleges and universities accept scores from either the ACT or SAT, there’s no advantage to taking one test over the other. This means you can apply to any school, regardless of which test you decide to take.
Now, let’s talk about the actual content of the two tests. Though not identical, the ACT and SAT are more closely related than ever before as a result of the SAT’s massive redesign in 2016. Now, both exams have the following features in common:
- Both tests have four sections
- Both tests have Math, Reading, and Writing
- Both tests are about 3 hours long
- The essay is optional in both the tests
Despite all these similarities, there are still many ways the ACT and SAT differ from each other.
ACT vs SAT: 11 Key Differences
#1: Time Per Question
The differences in time per question (if you were to spend the same amount of time on each question in a given section):
ACT English/SAT Writing
No Calculator: 75 sec/question
SAT : 3 hours + an additional 50 mins for the optional writing portion. 153 total questions. Scored on a scale of 400-1600
ACT : 2 hours 55 mins + an additional 40 mins for the essay portion. 215 total questions. Scored on a scale of 1-36
#2: Science Section
Another significant difference has to do with science. While the ACT contains a section entirely devoted to science, the SAT does not.
#3: No Calculator Math Subsection
Unlike the ACT for which you may use a calculator on all Math questions, the SAT contains a Math “No Calculator” subsection for which you may not use a calculator. Consisting of 20 questions, the No Calculator subsection is a mere 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT. (By contrast, the Math Calculator subsection is 55 minutes long and consists of 38 questions.)
#4: Types and Balance of Math Concepts
The ACT has a much larger focus on geometry, which makes up about 30-45% of ACT Math. By contrast, geometry accounts for less than 10% of SAT Math questions.
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.
If you’re good at algebra and data analysis, you’ll likely do well on the SAT. But if you’re a fan of trig functions and geometry and are comfortable with matrices and logs, the ACT is a better choice.
#5: Math Formulas Reference Guide
Here’s another math-related difference: the SAT provides you with a diagram of math formulas, whereas the ACT does not.
#6: Importance of Math in 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).
#8: Grid-In Math Questions
If you love multiple-choice, especially when it comes to math questions, you might want to stick with the ACT. SAT has some grid-ins, which are math questions for which you must fill in your own answer. In other words, you’ll have no answer choices from which to choose on these questions!
Grid-ins account for 22% of SAT Math, or 13 total questions across the No Calculator (five grid-ins) and Calculator (eight grid-ins) subsections. By contrast, ACT Math as multiple-choice questions only. If you’re not a fan of math questions that don’t offer you any answer choices, the ACT is the superior choice.
#9: Evidence-Support Reading Questions
Evidence-support questions are a big part of SAT Reading but are entirely absent on ACT Reading. Evidence questions can be somewhat tricky, especially if you’re not sure where you found your answer in the passage. If you’re not into the idea of interconnected questions, try the ACT instead (whose Reading questions are always separate from one another).
#10: Chronological Reading Questions
On SAT Reading, all questions given are in chronological order—that is, 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 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: Optional Essay
The final major difference between the two tests is with the optional essay. On the ACT, there is an essay component that you can choose to take; however, as of summer 2021, the SAT will no longer offer an extra essay.
ACT vs SAT: Which Test Is Right for You?
At last, it’s time to ask yourself: which test is right for you—the ACT or SAT? Here are three ways to help you make your decision.
Method 1: Take Official Practice Tests
Instead of just guessing whether you’ll be better at the ACT or SAT, the best way to decide is to actually take each test and then compare your scores. To do this, you’ll need to find an official practice test for both the ACT and SAT, which can be found on our website, ACT FREE PRACTICE TEST
Here’s what you’ll do: choose one official practice test for each exam and then decide on the days you’ll take them. As a reminder, each test takes approximately four hours, so make sure you set aside enough time to complete each test without interruption. Do not take the tests on the same day or even two days in a row. In addition, make sure that you’re taking the tests a week apart in a quiet place.
Method 2: Take an SAT vs. ACT Quiz
Another way you can determine which test is right for you is to take a short quiz. In the chart below, check whether you agree or disagree with each statement.
I struggle with geometry and trigonometry.
I am good at solving math problems without a calculator.
Science is not my forte.
It’s easier for me to analyze something than to explain my opinion.
I normally do well on math tests.
I can’t recall math formulas easily.
I like coming up with my own answers to math questions.
Tight time constraints stress me out.
I can easily find evidence to back up my answers.
Chronologically arranged questions are easier to follow.
Now, count up your check marks in each column to find out what your score means.
Mostly Agrees — The SAT is your match!
If you agreed with most or all of the above statements, the SAT is what you’ve been looking for. With the SAT, you’ll have more time for each question and won’t need to deal with a pesky science section or a ton of geometry questions.
Mostly Disagrees — The ACT’s the one for you!
If you disagreed with most or all of the statements, you’ll most likely prefer the ACT over the SAT. On the ACT, you’ll never have to come up with your own answers to math problems, and you get to let your opinion shine in your writing.
Equal Agrees and Disagrees — Either test will work!
If you checked “Agree” and “Disagree” an equal number of times, either the ACT or SAT will suit you. Unless you decide to take both, I suggest taking official ACT and SAT practice tests (as described in #1 above) to see which test’s format you’re ultimately more comfortable with.
Hope, this helps you in gaining the knowledge of what SAT and ACT tests are about, how to decide which test is right for you, and exact steps to help you take a decision.