The decision on which test to take - ACT or SAT - boils down to what type of things the student is good at i.e. your aptitude. Most colleges accept both scores so it is often a good idea to prepare for (and take) both tests. There are many areas where both tests overlap and students who do well on one test tend to do equally well on the other.
edit Which test to take
Several colleges require you to take the SAT or the ACT or either test. Since this is a factor that varies from one college to another, students must examine the admission guidelines and requirements for all the colleges that they want to apply to. If either test is acceptable, the choice often boils down to where the student has a better chance of scoring well. This depends upon the subject matter of these tests (described below). Another factor to consider may be the time it takes to complete the test. The ACT allots:
- 45 minutes for a 75-question English section
- 60 minutes for a 60-question Math section
- 35 minutes for a 40-question Reading Comprehension section
- 35 minutes for a 40-question Science section
Comparatively, the SAT is structured such that the test taker is allowed at least one minute per question, on generally shorter sections (25 or fewer questions).
Another factor to consider is how colleges typically use SAT and ACT scores to evaluate a student's application. Virtually all competitive colleges "cherry-pick" SAT sub-scores i.e. they consider the best combination of Math, CR and Writing earned on different dates. Very few colleges do this with the 4 ACT sub-scores. So for most competitive colleges, a student who does not score strongly on all ACT sections on the same day, is being dragged down by one or more weaker sections, whereas the cherry-picking of the SAT scores means one weak section on one day does not hurt.
edit What is tested
The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) tries to gauge analytical skills and reasoning ability, while the ACT (originally an abbreviation of American College Testing) is a curriculum-based test that tries to assess the extent of knowledge of subjects taught in high school.
The College Board states that the SAT measures literacy and writing skills that are needed for academic success in college, and assesses how well a student analyzes and solves problems — a skill they learn in school that they will need in college.
ACT, Inc. says that the ACT assessment measures high school students' general educational development and their capability to complete college-level work with the multiple choice tests covering four skill areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. The optional Writing Test measures skill in planning and writing a short essay. Specifically, ACT states that its scores provide an indicator of "college readiness", and that scores in each of the subtests correspond to skills in entry-level college courses in English, algebra, social science, humanities, and biology.
While ACT has a Science Reasoning Test, which tests the student's ability to read scientific charts, tables, and conflicting scientific opinions, SAT does not have any Science Reasoning Test.
ACT is largely focused on grammar and punctuation and has little emphasis on vocabulary compared to the SAT, which puts relatively more emphasis on vocabulary.
edit Maximum Score
In ACT, each test has a maximum of 36 points per section, and the four scores are averaged together to determine the final score. In SAT the maximum score is 2,400 spread across 800 in math, 800 in critical reading, and 800 in writing.
edit Differences in Format
ACT has all multiple choice questions, whereas in SAT, the candidate is required to work out answers to some math questions. In ACT, the level of difficulty remains fairly constant. On the other hand, questions on the SAT tend to become more difficult as the test progresses. In total, the ACT has 215 questions while SAT has 140 questions.
The Mathematics section of the SAT is widely known as the Quantitative Section or Calculation Section. It consists of:
- A 25-minute section, entirely multiple choice, with 20 questions
- Another 25-minute section with 8 multiple choice questions and 10 grid-in questions. The grid-in questions have no penalty for incorrect answers because the student guessing isn't limited.
- A 20-minute section with 16 multiple-choice questions.
The math section in the ACT is a 60-minute, 60-question test with 14 questions covering pre-algebra, 10 elementary algebra, 9 intermediate algebra, 14 plane geometry, 9 coordinate geometry, and 4 elementary trigonometry. The SAT does not include trigonometry.
edit Calculator Use
With the recent changes to the content of the SAT math section, the need to save time while maintaining accuracy of calculations has led some to use calculator programs during the test. The use of a graphing calculator is sometimes preferred for the SATs, especially for geometry problems and questions involving multiple calculations.
The calculator requirements are stricter for ACT than the SAT in that computer algebra systems are not allowed; however, the ACT permits calculators with paper tapes, that make noise, or that have power cords with certain "modifications" (i.e., disabling the mentioned features), which the SAT does not allow.
Both tests have a reading section. In the SAT, it's called Critical Reading and consists of 3 sections: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, with varying types of questions, including sentence completions and questions about short and long reading passages.
For the ACT, the reading section is a 35-minute, 40-question test that measures reading comprehension in 4 passages: one representing prose fiction, another representing social science, the third representing humanities, and the last representing natural science.
edit English and Writing
The ACT has an English section that the SAT does not include. This is a 45-minute test that covers English usage, grammar and rhetorical skills. This 75-question test consists of 5 passages with various sections underlined on one side of the page and options to correct the underlined portions on the other side of the page.
To some extent, the SAT's Writing section is analogous to the ACT's English section. The Writing section includes multiple choice questions (70%) and a brief essay (28%).
edit Science Reasoning
Another section exclusively in the ACT is Science Reasoning. It is a 35-minute, 40-question test based on logical reasoning (not classroom science), with 7 passages each followed by 5-7 questions (3 Data Representation passages with 5 questions each, 3 Research Summary passages with 6 questions each, and one Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions).
edit Video explaining the differences between SAT and ACT
edit Strategy for students
ACT doesn’t penalize students for wrong answers. So, students should make guesses on all questions they are unsure about. But in SAT, students are penalized for wrong answers. So don’t make blind guesses. The best strategy while writing SAT is to try and eliminate one or two answers and then make the best guess from the remaining choices.