The junior and senior years of high school are all about thinking about going to college and choosing a school that fits your dreams and your personal goals. In that regard, these years are also when you would be thinking about preparing for the standardized tests that will help your college application. The two most popular ones are the ACT and the SAT.
But which of the two should you choose to take? Students often get confused as to which between the ACT and the SAT they should take. While they both test the same topics and academic concepts that any high school student should have learned at that point, there are a lot of key differences between those two standardized tests.
Here is a guide we have put up to help you understand what is the difference between the ACT and the SAT:
ACT vs SAT: What Makes Them Different Tests?
Here are the key differences between these two standardized tests:
1. Overall, the ACT and the SAT cover the same topics but the tests are structured differently. The ACT is divided into four sections (and an optional essay): Math, English, Reading, and Science Reasoning. Meanwhile, the SAT is divided into three sections (and an optional essay): Writing and Language, Reading, and Math.
2. In terms of length, the ACT is a bit shorter than the SAT as the entire test will take 2 hours and 55 minutes. Meanwhile, the SAT is just five minutes longer and will take about 3 hours for you to complete.
3. When it comes to the types of questions asked, the ACT uses questions that are more or less straightforward in their approach. The SAT tends to be a bit trickier because of how the questions are often evidence and content-based types.
4. The scoring for the tests is different. The ACT scores you on a scale of 1 to 36. Meanwhile, the SAT uses a scale that ranges from 200 to 800 while the composite sections are scored on a scale of 400 to 1600.
5. While the essay portions for both tests are optional, they are quite different. The ACT will require you to analyze a certain issue and will ask you to defend your stand. Meanwhile, the SAT essay tests your comprehension of a certain passage or text.
6. In terms of difficulty levels of questions, the ACT English and Reading sections are randomly arranged in terms of difficulty while the Math and Science sections will increase in difficulty as you progress. For the SAT, Math questions increase in difficulty as you progress but the same could not be said about the Reading and Writing and Language sections.
7. They are both offered seven times a year but are tested on different dates. You can check the ACT and the SAT websites to know the testing dates for both of those standardized tests.
How are the ACT and the SAT scored differently?
A key difference between the ACT and the SAT is how they are scored. Like any standardized test, both the ACT and the SAT have no failing marks. Instead, you will be scaled based on your score. The scaling depends on which between the ACT and the SAT you are taking.
For the ACT, the score range will be from 1 to 36. Each of the tests in the ACT will be scored using this range. In the ACT, you will only be scored if you get the right answer and there will be no penalties if you get an item wrong. Your total score for the ACT will be the average of all four of the sections. Meanwhile, the Essay portion will be scored on a scale of 2 to 12. The score in your essay will not count towards your total score.
In the SAT, the total score range is between 400 and 1600. However, the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math Sections are each given their own scale of 200 to 800. Your scores in both of those sections will be combined. The Essay portion uses three different scales for scoring. Whatever your score is in the Essay section will not count towards your final score in the SAT.
We’ve written a guide on what is good ACT score and SAT score range to check out.
ACT vs. SAT: What are the Differences in Test Format?
Since both the ACT and the SAT test all of the fundamental topics you are expected to know up to your high school years, there really are not a lot of differences in the topics covered between the two standardized tests. However, the way the tests are formatted is where lies the major difference between the ACT and the SAT.
For the ACT, the test covers English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning, and an optional Essay Section. This test is shorter than the SAT and lasts for 2 hours and 55 minutes. You will be given 45 minutes for the English section, 60 minutes for the Math section, 35 minutes for the reading section, and 35 minutes for the Science Reasoning section. The optional Essay portion should be completed in 40 minutes.
The questions asked in all of the four sections of the ACT tend to focus more on a straightforward style of questioning that will test your knowledge of the topics tested by this standardized test. For example, it will ask you for the answer to a question without providing real-world situations or contexts and evidence you can derive your answers from. These questions might be longer but they are less complex and are not really difficult to understand. However, there have been reasons to believe that the ACT is better for those who prefer using knowledge than analytical thinking.
The SAT covers Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and an optional Essay. In that regard, it does not have a separate section for Science. You are given 65 minutes for the Reading section, 35 minutes for the Writing and Language section, and 80 minutes for the Math section. The Math section is divided into two parts: no calculator and with a calculator. The entire SAT will last for 3 hours. Meanwhile, the optional Essay section is an additional 50 minutes.
Rather than focusing more on content and straightforward knowledge, the SAT tests you based on logic and reasoning. The questions asked in the SAT are more or less evidence and context-based so that the exam will be able to test you on how you can apply your knowledge and your logical thinking in real-world situations. There are also questions that will require you to go through multiple steps just to get to the correct answer. In that regard, the SAT might be more complicated compared to the ACT. However, some say that the SAT is geared more towards those who love to analyze different situations rather than relying on their straightforward knowledge of a topic.
How are Incorrect Answers Penalized on the ACT vs. SAT?
In the ACT, there has always been no penalty for incorrect answers. In other words, even if you do get some items wrong, your score will only be counted based on the correct answers. You can guess your answers for questions that you find difficult since there are no penalties for guessed wrong answers in the ACT.
For the SAT, there used to be what we call as a “guessing penalty” that deducts a quarter of a point for every wrong answer you get. The reason for implementing this was to dissuade students from guessing answers to a question when they do not know the correct answer or when they are already short on time. However, leaving an item blank will not merit any penalty.
But the new version of the SAT no longer implements the guessing penalty. That means that you will no longer be penalized for getting a wrong answer to a question. So instead of leaving an item blank in case you find the question difficult, you are free to guess your way through it without worrying about getting penalized. This does not only promote “guessing” but will also prevent students from leaving items blank.
What is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT Math Sections?
The Math section is one of the common denominators between the ACT and the SAT. Although there are a lot of similarities between the topics tested by ACT Math and SAT Math such as Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, there are also key differences between those two sections. However, the ACT covers Probability and Statistics while the SAT covers Data Analysis.
In terms of the structure of the test, the ACT Math section is shorter and will only give you a single minute to answer each question. The emphasis of ACT Math is on how well you remember or memorize how to perform certain calculations depending on the problem or the topic. It is processed-based, in a sense, because what you need to do is to remember how to do the process of the calculations instead of the actual calculations themselves because you are allowed to use a calculator for the entire duration of the test.
On the other hand, SAT Math is divided into two sections: no calculator and with a calculator. You will have more than a minute to answer each of the questions in the SAT Math section, which means that you will have more time compared to ACT Math. However, you also have to consider the possibility that you really need all the time you can have when answering SAT Math because the emphasis is on critical thinking rather than on memorizing formulas and computations. Also, you really need to know how to use manual computations because a portion of the test will not allow you to use a calculator. Check out our post on the seven common mistakes on the SAT Math test.
What is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT Reading Sections?
Another common denominator between the ACT and the SAT is that they both have a Reading section. The ACT Reading section has four passages. Meanwhile, SAT Reading has five reading passages. They both test how well you comprehend the contents of the passages given to you but the way the questions are framed is different.
First off, as to timing, the ACT Reading section is more time-compressed because you only have about less than a minute to answer each question. It might look shorter because there are only 40 questions but what you have to consider is that you need to answer those questions in 35 minutes. Meanwhile, the SAT Reading section provides you with 65 minutes to answer 52 questions. That means that you have more than a minute for each question.
As to the way they give you questions, the ACT rarely gives line numbers. So when a question in ACT Reading asks you about the details of a certain part of the reading passage, it will not give you the line in which you can find the details. You have to skim the entire passage to find the portion that the question is referring to. However, the SAT Reading questions will always provide you with the line numbers so that all you have to do is to go straight to the line of the passage to find the answer to the question.
Finally, since the ACT Reading section focuses more on knowledge, it will not ask evidence-based questions that are usually very common in the SAT. Evidence-based questions are usually connected to the questions that come before them. That means that such questions in the SAT Reading section will require a higher level of thinking on your part as opposed to the straightforward thinking you need for ACT Reading.
What is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT Writing Sections?
A key difference between the ACT and the SAT is that the ACT does not have a dedicated writing section. Instead, what it has is ACT English. Meanwhile, the SAT has a Writing and Language portion. What makes ACT English and SAT Writing and Language different from one another.
First off, time is of the essence in ACT English because you will be asked to answer all the questions in an average of about 36 seconds per question. Meanwhile, for SAT Writing and Language, you have an average of about 48 seconds to answer each question.
In terms of the reading passages you will be given, ACT English will require you to read and comprehend a total of five passages while SAT Writing and Language will ask you to analyze four passages. That means that ACT English is geared towards those who can quickly comprehend what they are reading as opposed to SAT Writing and Language, which was made for those who like to take their time to understand and analyze what they are reading.
Is There a SAT Science Section?
Another major difference between the ACT and the SAT is that the former has a section dedicated solely for Science. Meanwhile, the SAT has no Science section. The reason behind this goes back to the main focus of the SAT, which is to test your logical and analytical thinking rather than your knowledge of the topics. In that regard, the College Board believes that the three sections are already sufficient in testing your logical and analytical skills.
Do Colleges Prefer SAT or ACT?
Lastly, when you are deciding which between the SAT or the ACT to take, the one thing you might be asking is which between those two standardized tests that colleges prefer more. It actually depends on the college you are applying for an in the location of your school of choice.
Traditionally, the SAT has been the more popular one because it is older than the ACT. However, 2012 marked the first time that the ACT actually overtook the SAT in terms of the number of takers. Since then, it has continued to rival the SAT in terms of test-takers. Meanwhile, those in the Midwest seem to be taking the ACT more than the SAT. However, the East and the West coasts still prefer the SAT more than the ACT.
As to which between the two that colleges prefer, there is no direct answer to that because college admissions boards will always tell you that they do not prefer one over the other and that they accept both the SAT and the ACT. That means that it is still up to the student on which between the two standardized tests he or she will be submitting to the college of choice.
However, it is worthy to note that the region still plays a role. Again, those who are in the East and West coasts are likely to submit the SAT over the ACT. Meanwhile, those who are in the Midwest are more likely to submit the ACT for college. But again, this is merely a matter of choice or trend among students and not because there is preferential treatment in the schools they are applying for.
Wrapping Things Up: ACT vs. SAT Differences
Now that you know the major differences between the ACT and SAT, you may be wondering which between the two to take. It really depends on a lot of factors such as your own personal preference when it comes to test type and on your school of choice because there are a lot of considerations to look into before you may want to choose one over the other.
For example, if you prefer a more straightforward approach by relying on your knowledge to answer questions, the ACT may be the better test for you to take over the much more analytical style of questioning you will encounter in the SAT. However, if you see that the trend in your region tilts more towards students choosing the SAT over the ACT, you may want to focus on the SAT.
To be sure, it might be a good idea to take both of the exams to increase your chances of getting admitted into your college of your choice. Reviewing for the ACT and the SAT will take a lot of time and effort on your part but, so long as you do not need to take both or either tests more than twice, you may be able to accomplish the feat in a single academic year.
Did you enjoy this post? Then you may like our other SAT content:
> 125 SAT Tips and Test Taking Strategies