Students across the nation struggle with this question each year. “Should I take the ACT or SAT? Maybe both?” As the time to send in your college applications nears, this is an important decision you must make.
What’s the difference?
There are many similarities between the ACT and SAT, but there are some key differences you should take into consideration. Let’s start with a basic overview of each test.
|Total Time||2 hrs 55 mins without Writing|
3 hrs 35 mins with Writing
|3 hrs without Essay
3 hrs 50 mins with Essay
5. Writing (optional)
2. Writing and Language
3. Math No Calculator
4. Math Calculator
5. Essay (optional)
|Time Per Section||English: 45 mins|
Math: 60 mins
Reading: 35 mins
Science: 35 mins
Writing (optional): 40 mins
|Reading: 65 mins
Writing and Language: 35 mins
Math No Calculator: 25 mins
Math Calculator: 55 mins
Essay (optional): 50 mins
|Number of Questions||English: 75 questions|
Math: 60 questions
Reading: 40 questions
Science: 40 questions
Writing (optional): 1 essay
|Reading: 52 questions
Writing and Language: 44 questions
Math No Calculator: 20 questions
Math Calculator: 38 questions
Essay (optional): 1 essay
|Scoring||1 - 36||400 - 1600|
The SAT gives you more time
You will roughly have the same amount of time for each test overall, but the amount of time you spend on each section differs. The SAT gives you more time per section, which amounts to more time per question overall.
|Reading||53 sec/question||75 sec/question|
|ACT English/SAT Writing||36 sec/question||48 sec/question|
|Math||60 sec/question||No Calculator: 75 sec/question
Calculator: 87 sec/question
That doesn’t make the SAT easier, though. How well you do all depends on your skill sets and your comfortability with the material the SAT tests. Still, if time management is a concern, you might gravitate towards the SAT.
As you can see in the tables above, the ACT’s sections are Reading, English, Math, and Science (not including Writing). The SAT’s sections are Reading, Writing, No Calculator Math, and Calculator Math. The Reading section on the ACT and SAT is like any reading comprehension you’ve seen before. There is a slight difference, though, concerning how the ACT and SAT approach this section. The SAT Reading contains evidence-support reading questions, meaning that some questions are reliant on the question before it. These types of questions ask you to find the best evidence to support the answer to the previous question. If you don’t get the answer to the previous question correct, there’s less hope of answering the following question correctly if it’s an evidence-support question.
The English section tests your knowledge of usage and mechanics (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and so on) and rhetorical skills (your ability to understand how a passage flows and communicates its point). This is called the Writing section on the SAT.
The ACT’s Math section has a heavy emphasis on Geometry (roughly 35-45%). It also has a slightly larger focus on trigonometry and may test on concepts like matrices, logarithms, and graphs of trig functions. The SAT has two math sections, the first of which doesn’t allow you to use a calculator. You shouldn’t worry too much about this as all questions on either test are designed so that you can solve them without a calculator. Make sure you practice, however, so that you can complete the problems efficiently. The SAT gives you a reference guide of math formulas at the beginning of each Math section. This means that you don’t have to memorize as many formulas for the SAT, but understand that the reference guide only covers geometric concepts (pictured below). The ACT will not give you any formulas, you will have to memorize everything you need to know. Both tests give a heavy emphasis on Algebra in the Math sections.
These are the formulas you will have on the SAT.
Another major difference is that the SAT has grid-in questions for both Math sections. Grid-in questions account for 22% of the SAT Math sections. Instead of being able to fall back on a lucky guess, you will have to fill in an exact answer. If you struggle with getting the exact answer in math (especially with algebraic concepts), you might want to consider the ACT a bit more.
Math is much more important on the SAT
If Math isn’t your strong suit overall, you should consider the ACT as math on the SAT has a much greater effect on your overall score. This is because the ACT has 4 different sections which average into your composite score. As a result, Math only makes up 25% of your score on the ACT. On the SAT, however, Reading/Writing and Math are the only factors that make up your final score. This means Math on the SAT accounts for half the score!
The ACT Science section
The ACT includes a Science section, which does not exist on the SAT. This is not a cause for nervousness; however, as you are not expected to know a lot of background information. The Science section is basically reading comprehension but with charts and graphs. If you are comfortable with a section focused on reading and analyzing scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses, the ACT may be for you. If it’s not, you should be aware that the SAT will still have some of these kinds of passages in its Reading section.
The essay section is optional on both tests; however, a college you apply to may require that you take the essay section.
On the SAT, you must read and analyze a passage. Instead of giving your opinion on the author’s claims, the SAT asks you to explain how the author builds their argument to persuade their audience. You will need strong reading comprehension skills to pick out the main points of the author’s argument and support it with evidence from the passage to provide your analysis.
On the ACT, you will read a passage about an issue and analyze the different perspectives on that issue. In this essay, you will give your opinion as you compare how it relates to the perspectives presented in the passage. You will need to be able to compare and contrast these perspectives while giving ample evidence to support your points.
Which one is easier?
Neither test is particularly harder than the other. Whichever test works best for you depends on the factors described above. If time management is a known issue for you, you might prefer the SAT, but if you don’t have strong math skills, the ACT might be better as math will have a lower impact on your score. Take a look at the kinds of concepts each exam will test in order to decide which one gives you a better shot at a high score.
Do colleges have a preference?
The ACT and SAT are both accepted by colleges and universities across the nation. Colleges don’t have a preference for one or the other, so neither one gives you an advantage in that regard. Whether the college you apply to is in the Ivy League or not, the ACT and SAT are accepted everywhere. The only difference may be that more competitive schools may require you to take the essay portion of either test.
Should I take both?
There isn’t an advantage to taking both tests. As stated above, colleges will accept whichever test you choose, so it’s best to figure out which test works best for you and stick with that one. It may be worth it to take each test once if you need the practical experience to make your final decision about whichever one to give your focus, but it doesn’t make sense to test on both beyond that. If you try to take both tests, all it does is split your study time and may lead to confusion later down the line when trying to remember what strategies and concepts you need to know.
The ACT and SAT have some significant differences, but they are also very similar in many ways. The primary difference between the two lies in the content and how the content is weighted on each test. You could say the ACT is more reading/grammar-heavy, while the SAT is more math-heavy. The SAT gives you more time and some reference material for the Math section, but it also requires you to be more precise for the grid-in questions. This need for precision further extends to the Reading section, where you are faced with the interconnected evidence-support questions. Ultimately, you must decide whichever test works best for your knowledge and testing style. You’ll likely develop a preference pretty quickly – simply take a practice test for each test to see which one you like more.
If you need a tutor, give us a call. We have helped students with all the situations above, and our students see significant increases in their scores after roughly 8 sessions (8 hours) with one of our tutors.
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