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

The SAT and ACT are both tests that are used for college admissions. Some people have certain misconceptions: certain schools prefer one test over the other, one test is easier than the other, or one test is better than the other. But the truth is, schools accept both tests equally, and whether or not one test is easier or better than the other depends on the student’s personal test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

Overall, the SAT has Reading, Writing and Language, and Math sections with an optional essay. Alternatively, the ACT has English, Math, Reading, and Science sections with an optional essay. The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 – 1600, while the ACT is scored on a scale of 1 – 36. If excluding breaks and the essay, you are given 3 hours to complete the SAT, whereas you are given 2 hours and 55 minutes to finish the ACT.

Normally, I recommend taking a practice test of each to get a feel for each test and see if you score better on one than the other.  One way to see if you scored higher on one test than the other is to look up a SAT to ACT score conversion chart, such as the one here.

The infographic below displays some of the basic differences between the SAT and ACT, and I’ll also go into further detail about the differences and similarities of the two tests in more detail, section by section.

Differences between the SAT and ACT

SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading

The SAT Reading section includes five reading passages, covering U.S. or World Literature, History, Social Sciences, and Sciences. You have to answer 52 questions about the passages and are given 65 minutes to do so. On the other hand, the ACT Reading section has four reading passages, spanning Fiction and Literary Narrative, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Natural Sciences. There are 40 questions to answer about the passages, and you are allowed 35 minutes to answer them.

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that you are given less time per question for the ACT than the SAT in the Reading sections. While the pressure of time exists for both tests, the ACT Reading section is more of a time-crunch. However, the types of questions that are asked vary depending on which test you take. The SAT Reading questions are often more analytical and require more critical thinking than the ACT Reading questions, which are more straightforward.

SAT Writing and Language vs. ACT English

The SAT Writing and Language and ACT English sections both test similar grammar concepts. Yet, the SAT Writing and Language section has 44 questions that need to be answered in 35 minutes, while the ACT English section has 75 questions in 45 minutes. Again, the ACT gives you less time per question than the SAT on the English and Writing sections, and you’ll be answering a lot more grammar questions on the ACT than the SAT. So if grammar and test-taking under timed conditions are weak spots for you, you may prefer the SAT Writing section.

SAT Math vs. ACT Math

Both the SAT Math and ACT Math cover concepts from Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Algebra II. However, the SAT Math is divided into two sections, the No Calculator section and the Calculator section. For the No Calculator section, you get 20 questions that need to be solved in 25 minutes, and for the Calculator section, you get 38 questions and 55 minutes.

On the other hand, the ACT Math is not divided into two sections. It is one math section in which you get 60 question and 60 minutes. But, you get to use your calculator throughout the entire section. If the calculator is your best-friend and you are someone who makes way too many mistakes without it, the ACT Math may be a better bet for you.

You can see that you get more than a minute per math question on the SAT, whereas you are allowed exactly one minute per question on the ACT. All of the ACT Math questions are very straightforward. While the SAT Math section involves some clear-cut questions, students find that the SAT Math section also has questions that make them apply math concepts in ways that they are not used to.

ACT Science

The ACT has a Science section, which the SAT does not. The ACT Science section isn’t about asking you to spit-out chemistry formulas or biology facts. Rather, it is more about analyzing and interpreting scientific passages, graphs, and tables and answering questions about them. If that makes you uncomfortable or isn’t your strong suit, the ACT Science section may not be for you.

In the End

The SAT and ACT are two different tests. Some of the differences that I have mentioned above may be one student’s weaknesses and another student’s strengths. One of the best ways of figuring out whether or not one test caters better to your strengths is to take a practice SAT test and a practice ACT test. But, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, you can also weigh the personal pros and cons of taking the SAT or ACT and pick the best test for you.

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