Which Test Is Best? The Difference Between SAT & ACT

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Difference Between SAT & ACT

I’ve worked in the field of test preparation for 18 years and people are always asking: What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT? Substantively, there is very little difference between both tests. The differences come in more in the way the tests are structured and scored. You may have heard people say:
  • The ACT is a lot more like school.
  • The ACT is better for students who…(fill in any number of situations)
  • The ACT has a lot more grammar.
Some of these statements may have been true 10 years ago, before the SAT underwent major changes in 2005.  But now both tests are very similar. Both have math, reading, grammar and test analytical thinking skills. The only section that may seem to stand out is the ACT Science section. If you’ve ever taken those questions you know that it doesn’t call upon your knowledge of science. It’s really reading with charts and graphs which draws upon some of the same skills tested in SAT Reading and Math.

SAT & ACT Content

The content of the SAT and ACT are very very similar. Yes, there are a few differences and this is what I would teach if you were a student in my class: First, the SAT tests more vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean there’s no vocabulary on the ACT, there is. It’s embedded in the reading passages, but it’s not obvious-test-your-knowledge-of-the-word that appears on the sentence completion questions on the SAT. That’s one difference. Another difference on the ACT there are Trig questions – probably 4 or 5 out of the 60 math questions. They’re very basic- sin, cosine, tangent, and unit circle, but there’s no trig tested on the SAT.  SAT math does not go past Algebra II concepts.

SAT & ACT Structure and Scoring

The major differences in the tests – and this is where one person might prefer one over the other- come in the structure. First is the way the test is set up. The SAT has 10 graded sections about 25 minutes each and you alternate between Reading, Math, and Writing in random order. Some students like this because they never have to do one thing for too long. The ACT is very predictable. It’s always the same. Students begin with 45 minutes of English, 60 minutes of Math; then 35 minutes of Reading and 35 minutes of Science. Writing is always at the end and it’s optional at this time. Some students really like the predictability of the ACT. They know what to expect and which section will be next. They also like the fact that all of the math is done at once. I have other students who don’t like that. One student I was working with this week said: “Mrs. Dorsey, if I have to sit there for 60 minutes to do nothing but math I just can’t stand it. I can’t focus for that long.”   She prefers the format of the SAT where she gets to change focus every 25 minutes. Another difference is the way the test is scored. The ACT is what students are used to—earing points for correct answers. On the SAT students earn points for right answers, but lose ¼ of a point for every incorrect response. Students without a strategy who arrive at the SAT and answer everything, even though it’s not necessary to earn the score they need, are probably at a disadvantage.  Students who understand the SAT grading system can use it to their advantage.

Take Both and Decide

Some students prefer the SAT to the ACT or vice versa, but they have to take both tests to determine which test allows them to perform at their personal best. So look at which test structure appeals to your test taker. It’s not that one’s better or worse — easier or harder. They’re just different.]]>

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