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SAT vs. ACT: What is the Real Difference?

A road sign reading Hot Tip.

You may be spending your summer studying for the dreaded standardized tests, but have you ever really considered the difference between the SAT and ACT? Have you ever stopped to think about which exam might be better for you?

The Big Difference

The ACT is considered to be a curriculum-based exam, meaning it is based on a material you may have already seen in the classroom. The SAT is considered to be more of a skills based test. The exam is designed to show that you have the skills needed to do well in college. Some say it is the test that is better for students who are stellar test-takers.

Structure and Content of the SAT and ACT

The structure and content of the exams are different as well. The SAT has ten sections; three Critical Reading, three Writing, three Math and one Experimental.

The Experimental section is used for future test development purposes. Your answers in this section are not included in your overall score, but while you are taking the SAT you will have no idea which section is considered “experimental”, other than the fact that you happen to have one extra Critical Reading, Math or Writing section.
The Math section includes problems in geometry, algebra II, and probability and statistics.

The Critical Reading section tests your vocabulary with sentence completion type questions. It also tests your critical reading and reading comprehension skills by asking you questions on short and long passages. Passages now include topics from natural sciences, humanities, literary fiction and social sciences.

The mandatory Writing section asks you to develop an opinion on a topic and will look at how you support your ideas. This section also includes multiple choice questions which ask students to recognize grammatical errors, improve sentence structure or improve paragraph structure.

The 5 sections of the ACT

The ACT is five sections; English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning and an optional Writing section. The ACT also has an Experimental section, however, the Experimental section on the ACT is obvious and is only included on certain test dates.

The English Section

The English section of the ACT tests punctuation, grammar and sentence structure. It will also tests rhetorical skills.

The Math Section

The Math section covers topics up through trigonometry, typically what most students would have completed in the classroom by the end of the 11th grade. The Reading section is comprised of four passages, prose fiction, social science, humanities and natural science and tests your referring and reasoning skills.

The Writing Section

The Writing section does include an optional essay, however some schools are requiring students who only submit ACT scores to complete the optional Writing section so that they may compare your score to other applicants who are taking the SAT. Make sure you check with the schools you are applying to see what is required prior to taking the exam. During the Writing section of the ACT, you are asked to develop a position on an issue based on the writing prompt.

The Science Section

The Science section of the ACT does not require you to recall everything from you high school biology or chemistry class, but some questions do require knowledge from introductory courses to answer some of the questions. This section is testing your interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning and problem solving skills.

Your Scores

ACT Scoring

The scoring of the two tests differs as well. The SAT is on a scale of 2400, with each section (Math, Reading, and Writing) worth 800 points. You also receive a score of 2 to 12 for your essay. There is a penalty for guessing on multiple choice questions on the SAT. You will be docked ¼ of a point for each wrong answer.
On the ACT, each subject test is scored from 1 to 36, and then each of these scores are averaged to create your Composite Score. The Writing test is also given a score of 2 to 12. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT. In terms of how your scores are sent to schools, both tests now give you the option to decide which scores (by test date) are sent to which schools.

SAT Scoring

The SAT can send all of your scores on one score sheet, while the ACT sends scores from each test date individually. Both exams allow you send the first four score reports free of charge. Charges to send additional score reports to more than four schools varies. Remember to check with the schools you are applying to see what their score evaluating policies are. Some schools will combine your highest scores, so it may be worth it to send scores from multiple test dates.

The Next Steps to Take

No matter what the difference is, the best way to determine which test will work for you is to practice. There are both the SAT and ACT practice tests on-line and plenty of practice test questions out there as well. Take some time to practice both exams, compare your scores, and then determine which exam you feel more comfortable with. Also make sure you check with the schools you are applying to determine which exam they accept! Happy test taking!
Katherine Price
Educational Planner


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