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Articles / Preparing for College / ACT vs. SAT Differences

Feb. 7, 2021

ACT vs. SAT Differences

Over the years that I have been counseling seniors, I've had lots of questions similar to "Should I take the ACT or the SAT, or both?" Of course the answer to that is the sometimes frustrating "It depends."

To help out any of you who may be asking the same question, test preppers at ivybound.net have issued a convenient ACT vs SAT -- 10 Major Differences analysis:

Preparing for college is a trying time for students, and the emphasis on standardized testing does not make this time any easier. Some students are not sure whether to take the SAT or the ACT or both—or what criteria colleges seek. Enclosed is a concise description of ten major differences between the SAT and ACT, which may help students in making their test-taking decisions:

1) ACT includes trigonometry (typically 4 questions); SAT does not.

1a) ACT has occasional questions on Matrices, Logarithms, Radians, and unreal numbers; SAT does not.

2) ACT includes “science reasoning", which is logical reasoning based on data and scientific terms, but not based on classroom science.

3) SAT deducts points for wrong answers. However with coaching, students can actually use this to their ADVANTAGE.

4) SAT Math demands scrutinizing the English aspect of math questions. ACT is more straightforward, making it a more comfortable test, but not necessarily easier.

5) SAT directly tests high level vocabulary. This rewards students who are big readers or are good vocabulary absorbers.

6) SAT Critical Reading relies more on inference; ACT Reading asks questions that rely more on retrieving information from the text.

7) SAT Writing includes a written 25 minute essay. The ACT essay (30 min.) is optional, though most colleges require it.

8) The SAT Essay is more likely to ask about abstract topics; the ACT Essay will ask a practical question usually relating to high school life.

9) The ACT is more fast-paced; there are more questions to be done in a shorter amount of time.

10) One difference that could be considered “major" is colleges' USE of the SAT vs ACT: Almost all competitive colleges “cherry-pick" SAT sub-scores, meaning they consider the best combination of Math, CR and Writing earned on different dates. Very few colleges do this with the four ACT sub-scores. Thus for most competitive colleges, a student who does not ping strong scores 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.

Our suggestions:

Make a comparison. Buy The Official SAT Study Guide ISBN # 0-87447-852-9 and take any of the first three full length tests under timed conditions. Buy The Real ACT Prep Guide ISBN # 076891-9754 and take any of the three tests therein under timed conditions. If you really need to save time, you need not do the Writing sections for either (they compare almost the same). Score them and use the accompanying table to compare the non-Writing sections (1600 SAT scale) with one another.

Absent a comparison (or if the comparison shows nearly identical scores): most students seeking admission to competitive colleges who are capable of absorbing vocabulary should study for SAT and disregard ACT if scores are strong. Add ACT prep if you have time or if after two SATs the scores are unlikely to impress your target colleges.

Our equally important suggestion: START EARLY. Colleges credit the best score, so it's important to have three or more opportunities to take these tests. With vacations, proms, and graduations, that means the students who plan in advance will have the best opportunities. This is especially true for families that want to take advantage of Early Decision. For students who've had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry by the end of sophomore year, the summer before junior year and/or the fall of junior year are usually the best times to prep.

Bottom Line: the tests are similar. ACT remains a bit broader in content.

No college requires one over the other, and to our knowledge, no college has a preference.


So, you can see from the bottom line that there is perhaps more similarity than difference between the two tests than you may have suspected. I hope this review of the two tests will help you make any choices you have been considering. My thanks to ivybound.net for the information.

Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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