SAT or ACT? What’s the Difference? Which Should I Take?

The SAT and ACT are the two main standardized tests for college admissions — many of the most competitive U.S. colleges and universities will require you take one of the two.

Both the SAT and ACT have “optional” writing sections. Most of the more competitive colleges will “recommend” taking the writing section… more on this in another post.

The SAT has multiple choice and short answer questions. All multiple choice questions will be A-D (four answer options). The SAT has the following sections (as of March, 2016):

  1. Reading Test (65 minutes for 52 questions)
    1. You’ll be given different passages and then asked specific questions on those passages. Usually these passages will have different categories: fiction, historical essay (for example, something by Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy entrepreneur, or Virginia Woolf, a famous novelist), science writing (for example, a passage on DNA with graphs to interpret) and a pair of passages to compare.
    2. Many of the questions may have vocabulary embedded in the question (where they will ask about the meaning of a word, but you’ll have context clues since it was part of the passage)
    3. Several questions will be connected: Question #1 will ask what the main argument of the author was and Question #2 will ask which section of the passage provides the best evidence for Question #1.
  2. Writing and Language Test (35 minutes for 44 questions)
    1. This replaced the old correcting sentences questions. Now, instead of individual sentences, you’ll have mini-passages where things are underlines and they’ll ask you to look for grammatical errors, etc.
    2. Quite often, there will be questions that ask about flow
  3. Math No Calculator (25 minutes for 20 question)
  4. Math With Calculator (55 minutes for 38 questions)
    1. This is the only section that has short-answer questions. 8 out of the 38 questions will be fill-in the blank.
    2. Some of the questions in the new math section will embed questions that involve science, knowledge of that science-specific content is not necessary, but can sometimes be helpful.

The ACT is completely multiple choice, either A-E or F-K (five answer options), but has no short answer. The ACT has the following sections:

  1. English (45 minutes for 75 questions)
    1. Like the SAT Writing and Language Test, the English portion of the ACT has mini-passages that will have underlined portions for you to examine.
    2. In additional to grammatical errors, there will also be questions on whether additional details should/should not be included (for example: would including this fact add to the author’s point or distract from it?).
  2. Mathematics (60 minutes for 60 questions)
    1. A calculator is allowed (nothing programmable)
    2. There are geometry and even introductory trigonometry concepts, but no short answer.
  3. Reading Test (35 minutes for 40 questions)
    1. Usually four reading passages: prose/fiction, social science, humanities and natural science.
    2. Many of the passages were ones that were published within the past 10-20 years.
  4. Science Test (35 minutes for 40 questions)
    1. Often five different mini-sections with a little bit of reading (1-2 paragraphs) and some charts and/or graphs.
    2. While biology, chemistry and physics topics are all covered in these sections, there is often enough given (in terms of background information and formulas) that you don’t have to have taken the courses in question before taking this test (though it does help).

Though the new SAT will have a maximum of 1600 points (by 10 point increments) and the ACT is out of 36 points (1 point increments), many students will often score within the same percentile ranges (for example, their score might be the 81st percentile ranking on both the SAT and ACT). Thus, it often comes down to comfort level and also, how often you want to take the test in question. Both the main ACT and the main SAT are given six times a year, but the SAT* will report all your attempts to a particular school (meaning if you take it four times, the school will see all four scores) while the ACT will only report the score you want (from the date you felt like you did best on).

More on this later… (including more on SAT vs. SAT II, “recommended” vs “required” and preparing for the essay sections)


*For the SAT, there is a “score select” option where you can send just one set of scores, but there is then an asterisks next to your name, letting the college in question know that you paid to submit only one set.

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