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Differences Between the SAT and ACT

For the uninitiated, the ACT is the “other” admissions test that all colleges now accept. Despite popular misconception, the SAT and ACT are actually much more similar than they are different. Both tests are essentially reasoning tests and both tests are based off of a very similar content base, so my approach to tutoring both tests is accordingly very similar. That said, there are differences between the tests. The following is a general description of the similarities and differences between the SAT and ACT.
For more information about which test to choose CLICK HERE and about my methodology for ACT tutoring CLICK HERE

“Conventional wisdom is that the ACT is a content test and the SAT a reasoning test – even most tutors and test prep companies perpetuate this myth. The truth is that they both attempt to assess a test taker’s reasoning and critical thinking ability based on a content base that is similar and that largely overlaps”.

Whereas the SAT contains 3 sections (Math, Reading, and Writing), the ACT contains 4 main sections (Math, Reading, English, and Science). The Writing section on the SAT and the English section on the ACT are actually very similar and of course both tests have a Reading and Math section so it’s really just the Science section that sets the ACT apart structurally. However, despite the fact that the ACT has an additional section, the total length of the 2 exams is pretty similar – they both take about 4 hours. And although it might seem that the ACT tests an additional “subject” by including a Science section, its better to think of the Science section as a sort of science-based reading comprehension section that includes graphs and charts. The section does NOT test what you learned in Science class!

Conventional wisdom is that the ACT is a content test and the SAT a reasoning test – even most tutors and test prep companies perpetuate this myth. The truth is that they both attempt to assess a test taker’s reasoning and critical thinking ability based on a content base that is similar and that largely overlaps. Really the only sections on the ACT where content is a major factor are the English and Math sections, and the volume of content tested on the ACT English section is roughly equivalent to that tested on the SAT Writing section. And while it is true that content is significantly more important on the ACT Math section than the SAT Math section, this is partly made up for by the fact that the SAT Reading section is more content driven in that it tests vocabulary whereas the ACT Reading section does not. So really both exams draw from a similarly sized body of content and both tests seek to go beyond that content to assess how that content is applied by the test taker and the reasoning and critical thinking skills that go along with that.

“The biggest difference, however, and one that is sometimes overlooked, especially by students or parents who don’t understand the tests that well, is that time is much, much tighter on the ACT.”

Of course there are some slight differences between the style of the questions and this is probably most apparent on the Reading sections of the tests. SAT reading questions tend to require the student to infer more whereas the ACT reading questions tend to be more straightforward and detail oriented. And SAT math questions tend to be a little trickier and tend to reward creative problem solving ability whereas ACT Math questions deal with slightly more difficult content and are therefore more difficult in a straight-ahead Math sort of way.

The Biggest Difference Between the SAT and the ACT

The biggest difference, however, and one that is sometimes overlooked, especially by students or parents who don’t understand the tests that well, is that time is much, much tighter on the ACT. This is especially true on the Reading and Science sections where most adults would probably have difficulty finishing the sections in time. The SAT is comparatively much more generous on time, so for students who work slowly, and especially those who read slowly, the SAT is usually a better option.