The ACT is an achievement test that focuses on school curriculum-based skills — English, math, reading, and science. The SAT is more of a reasoning test that changes very subtly from one test to the next but still includes math, writing (English grammar), and critical reading; it does not contain a science component.
The ACT's straightforward style and formatting remains the same from test to test, enabling students to prepare and strategize. In contrast, the SAT always has the same time allotments and section types — writing, critical reading, and math — but may place them in a different order or have more or fewer questions of a certain type. Both the ACT and SAT have essay writing components; the ACT's is optional, and the SAT's will become optional in April 2016, when the test will undergo a significant redesign.
Deciding Between the SAT and ACT
The ACT is popular across the U.S., while the SAT is most popular in coastal states. Regardless of a student's location, most colleges use standardized tests as just one part of the admissions process and therefore have no strong preference for the ACT or SAT, only minimum score requirements on one or the other. However, some colleges require or prefer students take both the SAT and the ACT and, in some cases, SAT subject tests.
Students should examine admission guidelines and requirements for any colleges that they want to apply to, as this will help them decide which test to take or whether they need to take both. If either test is accepted in all their preferred schools, the choice then boils down to which test a student feels he or she has a better chance of scoring well on.
What Is Tested on the ACT and SAT
There are four sections in the ACT: English, math, reading, and science. Including breaks, the test usually takes a little over four hours to complete. In contrast, the SAT has 10 sections that cover writing (English), math, and reading. Including breaks, the SAT takes a little over four and a half hours. Both tests have essay writing components; the ACT's essay prompt is optional (though requested by many colleges these days), while the SAT's is required.
How these mostly overlapping subjects are tested differs between the two tests. The ACT aims to be straightforward and tests a student's ability to find the right answer in large chunks of information and sometimes long questions. The SAT is a "reasoning" test, in that answering questions on it can be as much a matter of understanding the question as it is finding the right answer. The two tests are very similar in many ways, but they aim to reveal different things about a student.
English and Writing
The ACT gives students 45 minutes to get through a 75-question English section, which is always the first section students encounter in the ACT. Five mid-length passages appear in this section with corresponding questions which test grammar, punctuation, conciseness, and sentence and paragraph strategy (i.e., where a word, phrase, or sentence should be placed in a given text).
The SAT calls its English test sections Writing sections. There are at least two writing sections in each SAT: one that must be completed in 25 minutes and another that must be done in 10 minutes. Though the SAT's writing section tests most of the same grammatical and structural concepts that the ACT's English section does, questions are presented in a much different way, appearing in the form of individual sentences or paragraphs, as opposed to full passages.
Both the ACT and the SAT allow for the use of a calculator in their respective math sections and test similar mathematical concepts. Basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry questions appear on both tests. While there are no trigonometry questions in the SAT, a few appear in the ACT; neither has calculus questions. Formulas are given to students on the SAT, but not on the ACT, which requires students to learn and memorize formulas if they haven't already.
ACT math and SAT math differ in how they present the subject. The ACT always treats math as its second section in the test and gives students 60 minutes to answer 60 multiple-choice questions. The SAT has three math sections: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. One 25-minute section has 20 questions and is multiple choice only; the other 25-minute section has eight multiple-choice questions and 10 "show us your work" questions that require writing; the 20-minute section consists of 16 multiple-choice questions.
Reading comprehension is tested in both the ACT and the SAT, but, again, how they approach the subject is different.
In the ACT, reading is always the third section of the test. Students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions on four passage types that always appear in the same order: prose, social science, humanities, and natural science. Each passage has 10 questions that cover fact-finding, inference, main ideas, points of view, etc. ACT reading passages are often long, so the section is all about using time wisely.
Three critical reading sections exist in the SAT: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. Each opens with vocabulary questions where students must choose the correct word or words from a multiple choice list to fill in blanks found in a sentence. After that, the SAT has fictional and nonfictional passages with questions about facts, inferences, main ideas, etc. The passages may be short or long, and in some cases students will have to juggle two passages at once to compare and contrast their concepts. SAT reading is less about strategy than the ACT's reading section; it is about figuring out what is being asked and what is being said in a passage. For that reason, most SAT reading questions include include line numbers.
One of the biggest differences between the ACT and the SAT is that the ACT has a science section, while the SAT does not. ACT science is the fourth section in the test, and students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions.
Students do not need prior scientific knowledge to get through this section, though it might help. Instead, this section tests a student's ability to read and comprehend scientific research based on study summaries, data in charts and graphs, and conflicting viewpoints. The science covered includes biology, chemistry, earth/space sciences, and physics. Sometimes students need to draw inferences or conclusions based on the information they are given.
Both the ACT and the SAT have essay prompts; the ACT's is optional, while the SAT's is required. The ACT gives students 30 minutes to write a response, whereas the SAT only gives 25 minutes. Prompts are slightly different between the two tests, but both the ACT and the SAT test a student's ability to write critically, structure an argument, and use correct grammar.
College Board, the maker of the SAT, always includes a variable section in its tests. It may be on any of the subjects—writing, reading, or math. It is used for testing new types of questions. Students have no way of knowing which section is the variable, but the section is not scored.
ACT vs. SAT Scoring
It is up to a student as to which scores a college will see. SAT students are given the option to fill out a section in their test booklets to have College Board send their scores to certain schools, but doing this may come with a downside, as colleges will then see a score history; most students will be better off sending scores themselves, rather than letting College Board handle it for them. However, some colleges specifically request a score history. As such, many students retake the ACT and SAT at least once but try to limit many retakes.
The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, as is each section. A composite score—again, out of 36—is derived from averaging all section scores. The science section is often graded on a curve.
Each section of the SAT receives a score between 200 and 800, and there is a composite score out of 2400. Sometimes reading and math sections are viewed together out of a score of 1600, with the writing score put to the side.
Guessing and Omissions
There is no wrong answer penalty in the ACT, so guessing is always to a student's benefit. Using elimination strategies to make better, more educated guesses can improve an ACT test-taker's score considerably.
The SAT does have a wrong answer penalty: students lose a ¼ of a point for each wrong answer. For the SAT, clever omission strategies should be used, as an omitted question neither gives a student a point nor takes one away.
Both the ACT and the SAT score essays on a scale of 0 to 12. Each essay is graded by two people who score the work out of 6. The two grades are added together to create a composite score, which is then often combined with a writing or English score.
College Board's SAT essay grading has been criticized in the past for its bias toward longer essays and big vocabulary. Les Perelman, a professor at MIT, gave a presentation on how formulaic writing with a historical quote and "big words" goes a long way to acing an SAT essay.
Frequent, timed practice greatly improves test scores, as does private tutoring.
The ACT's consistent layout allows for strategic test-taking. Generally speaking, ACT test-takers should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and mathematical formulas. They should also familiarize themselves with reading scientific data that is presented in charts and graphs. For reading, they need to be prepared to skim or take notes — anything to save time to get through questions as quickly and accurately as possible.
Likewise, SAT test-takers will benefit from reviewing grammar, punctuation, and mathematical concepts; formulas will be provided on the test, but being familiar with them is helpful. Students should be prepared to "reason" their way through the reading section, to decipher the meaning of questions and passages. Vocabulary practice is a must for SAT test-takers, as is knowing that vocab questions start easy in each section but steadily grow more difficult (i.e., vocab question #1 is easy, while vocab question #8 might be difficult and warrant omission).
SAT for April 2016 and Beyond
The SAT is changing in the near future. In March 2014, College Board revealed the SAT is undergoing a major redesign in response to criticism that the current test is biased and does not provide an accurate portrayal of students' abilities. As a result, the SAT will be very different beginning in April 2016, with College Board saying the new test "...will ask students to apply a deep understanding of the few things shown by current research to matter most for college readiness and success."
Some major changes include the following:
- A scoring scale of 400 to 1600.
- Some locations will allow students to take the SAT on computers.
- College Board is teaming up with Khan Academy to provide free, online test prep. This focus on prepping for the test is a major shift for the SAT, which has not always been straightforward and curriculum-based like the ACT.
- The writing and critical reading sections will be combined into one section type.
- The vocabulary sections that the SAT is so well known for will be scrapped in favor of more ACT-like vocabulary in context questions.
- Some parts of the math sections will ban calculators.
- There will be a 50-minute, optional essay writing component, wherein students will be asked to analyze a provided essay, discuss how it is structured, and explain whether it adequately communicates its ideas.
- There will be no penalty for wrong answers. The SAT will become exactly like the ACT in this regard.
More details are to come as the new test nears. Students, teachers, and parents are able to sign up for updates about the SAT on the College Board website.
- Official ACT Website
- Official SAT College Board Website
- A Closer Look at the SAT Revamp - WSJ.com
- College Board Shakes Up SAT - WSJ.com
- Fooling the College Board - Inside Higher Ed
- How Does Your SAT Score Compare? - WSJ.com
- The man who killed the SAT essay - The Boston Globe
- The SAT is going back to 1600 points - The Verge
- Wikipedia: ACT (test)
- Wikipedia: SAT