Both SAT and ACT are used as standardized entrance tests for students about to enter college. While ACT is more centered on school curriculum-based skills, the SAT is more of a reasoning test.

The ACT has a relatively straightforward style that has the same format every year, while the SAT may change slightly every year.

While both these tests include vital subjects like math, writing, and critical reading, the ACT exam features a science component while SAT does not.

Furthermore, both the ACT and SAT have essay writing components; the ACT has always been optional, and the SATs became optional in April 2016, when the test underwent a significant redesign.

If we compare the two testing styles, we will need to look at them in detail and compare them by component.

So, let's look at what sets SAT and ACT apart; which is the better choice for students looking to apply to college?

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Comparing SAT With ACT

Let's start with the name — SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test, and the ACT stands for American College Test.

As apparent from the name, the ACT test focuses more on what students learned in high school, while the SAT is more generalized as it tests literacy, writing skills, and analytical skills.

Both these tests have roughly the same time duration, with the ACT being 3 hours and 25 minutes and the SAT being slightly longer at 3 hours and 50 minutes.

Furthermore, the ACT is offered six times a year, with the ACT test dates falling in February, April, June, September, October, and December.

Meanwhile, SATs are offered seven times a year in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December.

It's important to note that both ACT and SAT qualify students for college admissions. Colleges do not strongly prefer one over the other, as long as the minimum score requirement is met.

However, some colleges may ask students to take both these tests alongside specialized SATs for individual programs. And preparing for both together may compel you to hire a private tutor.

When applying to colleges, students are advised to read through the admission requirements to help decide which test will suit them better for their application process.

What Is Tested In The ACT And SAT

The ACT includes four sections: math, reading, English, and science. In contrast, the SAT includes English, math, and reading only, divided into ten sections.

Both include an essay writing component, but this component is mandatory in SAT, while it is optional in the ACT exam.

The method of testing these components is different for both SAT and ACT. The ACT adopts a more straightforward style, expecting students to dig for answers from lengthy questions and large information segments, similar to school examinations.

In contrast, SAT is more of a reasoning-based test, which judges how well candidates can understand the question.

While the two tests share the same components, they differ in how they test students. Let's look at the specifics:

English and Writing

Candidates taking the ACT test have 45 minutes for the English section, during which they have to attempt 75 questions, and it is the first component of the examination.

This section has five medium-sized passages aiming to test grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph strategy, and comprehension skills.

In the SAT exam, the English writing section is divided into two segments. The first segment must be completed in 25 minutes, and the second segment must be done in 10 minutes.

As compared to the entire passages in ACT, the SAT questions are presented in the form of short paragraphs or sentences.

However, they both test the same areas of grammar, comprehension, and vocabulary.

Math

Both these tests allow students to use a calculator. The testing is done on basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry for both ACT and SAT.

SATs do not feature any trigonometry questions; however, some trig problems may appear in the ACT math test.

Neither of the two tests includes any calculus questions. Additionally, candidates have access to formulas in the SAT, but they must memorize them in the ACT.

The SAT math test is divided into three segments, comprising two 25-minute segments and one 20-minute segment.

Out of these, the 20-minute segments are entirely made up of multiple-choice questions, while the other two feature a mix of multiple-choice and word problems where you have to show the working.

In contrast, the ACT features a math section of 60-minutes, comprising of 60 multiple-choice questions. While attempting your ACT math practice test, make sure to keep strict track of time.

A series of mathematical algebra equations as a part of the ACT math practice test. The ACT will prepare you for demanding University programs centred around complex arithmetic calculations and techniques
Brush up on algebra, geometry, and arithmetic if you want to score well on your ACT math test. Although it is recommended that you appear for register for a date that will allow you time to prepare, if you don't have that time, you can seek the help of a private tutor. (Source: Unsplash)

Critical Reading

Both the ACT and SAT test comprehension skills in their reading segments, but the overall testing style and format are different.

In the ACT exam, the reading segment consists of 40 questions, divided into prose, social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences, with a total time of 35 minutes.

The passages are often long, so students must know how to prioritize their time well.

Meanwhile, the SAT has three reading segments, comprising of two 25-minute sessions and one 20-minute session.

Every segment starts with vocabulary questions, where students must pick the right word to fill the blanks in a sentence.

Then, the students must read through passages and answer questions. In some tests, students might be asked to contrast two passages.

The SAT reading section is more focused on the student's inference and comprehension skills, as opposed to the ACT test.

Science

This is where the similarities end; it serves as a distinguishing factor between the two.

The ACT test includes a science section, while SAT does not. In the science section – the fourth section in an ACT test – students must answer 40 questions in 35 minutes.

The questions are designed to test the students' ability to infer and deduce scientific hypotheses from data, charts, graphs, and summaries.

The science segment covers sub-fields like biology, chemistry, physics, and space sciences.

A student attempting a test with a pencil in their hand. SATs only allow students to use pencils; its essential to read through the guidelines on their website before appearing for the test to make sure you're entirely prepared with whatever you need
It is crucial to efficiently use your time during your SAT and ACT exams, as you have limited time for each segment. One of the reasons experts advise candidates to do official practice tests is so that they can perfect their timing. (Source: Pixabay)

Essay

This segment is another stark difference between the ACT and SAT. While ACT features an optional essay prompt, candidates taking the SAT must write an essay.

Meanwhile, the ACT essay segment has 35 minutes, while the SAT segment only has 25 minutes.

The primary skill being tested in both formats is presenting and structuring an argument while using the correct grammar and vocabulary.

Variable

The SAT also features a variable section, which includes one of math, writing, or reading subjects, and it is used to test out new questions.

The variable segment is always unannounced, and students have no way of knowing what section it will be based on. However, the good thing about it is that it is not scored.

A man in a brown sweater sitting on a chair attempting an ACT test. The best way to acclimatize yourself with the stress ACT environment is by signing up for one of the money trial tests conducted by various institutions
It's always a good idea to get your hands on an SAT or ACT math study guide to get an idea of the type of questions you will find in the exam. These are valuable sources of information that can help you understand the pattern. (Source: Unsplash)

Scoring

The ACT test is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, and each individual is subjected to the same scale. The overall score – known as a composite score – is graded out of 36 after calculating each section's average.

In comparison, each SAT section is graded between 200 to 800, with a composite score of 2400 for the complete test.

For the essay, both SAT and ACT grade students on a scale of 0 to 12. Two separate people grade the essay, and both scores combine to create a composite score.

In the ACT, candidates aren't penalized for wrong answers, so students can make educated guesses or use elimination strategies in the multiple-choice questions.

SAT does feature a wrong answer penalty, with every wrong answer losing ¼ of a point. In the SAT, it is a good idea to use an intelligent omission strategy instead of opting for guesswork.

The ACT features a consistent layout that allows students to strategize beforehand on how to tackle questions.

Before attempting the exam, try your hand at an ACT practice test to get a feel for how well you can score. Regular practice and private tutoring can help you boost your test score.

Furthermore, students taking the ACT exam must brush up on grammar, punctuation, and mathematical formulas.

In contrast, students planning to take the SAT must also polish these skills alongside preparing themselves to have strong inference, reasoning, and deduction skills.

Also, SAT candidates need to practice their vocabulary usage to attain a higher mark.

Meanwhile, College Board is also changing the SAT format, bringing it more in line with ACT by eliminating the penalty for wrong answers, altering the vocabulary to make it similar to the ACT style, and adding an optional essay writing component.

Prepare For Your SATs And ACTs

All this talk about patterns, segments, and durations may scare you off from appearing for either, but there's no running away from it — they're necessary if you want to go to college!

Therefore, it's best to make sure you're completely prepared. Take as many official practice tests as possible, or hire a private tutor to prepare you.

And if you want to go for the latter option, give Superprof a go! Superprof will help you find the best SAT or ACT tutors in your area.

All you have to do is sign up, go through several profiles, and choose the one that will teach you on your time and according to your budget!

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