You know that most colleges require either the ACT or the SAT as a part of admissions testing but which one should you take? We believe that understanding the differences between the two standardized tests shows that the ACT gives you a better opportunity to do well with dedicated preparation.
What is not so commonly known is that some of the really competitive schools require you to take not just the SAT but supplementary subject test as well, while these very same schools require just the ACT. So if you are in this situation it’s almost a no brainer! You can get by taking just one test, the ACT, or several tests; in some cases where you have to take the SAT plus a couple of subject tests.
So why choose the ACT? Well, the ACT is the most popular college admissions test in the US. The number of students taking the ACT surpassed the number of students taking the SAT in 2013 and that trend has been growing. You are probably reading this because you, like many students, perceive the ACT to be an easier test than the SAT and there's some truth to that. The ACT has always considered itself an achievement test which is meant to reflect what you learned in school while the SAT has up until recently been known as a reasoning test.
If you're a junior or senior you're probably familiar with the old SAT grading format out of 2400. You might even have some older siblings that took the original SAT out of 1600 and remember its emphasis on obscure vocabulary, tricky math questions and extremely long reading passages. There have been many complaints that the SAT did not do a very good job at predicting success at college either. In addition to that, the SAT used to penalize you if you got a wrong answer! For all these reasons the SAT changed dramatically in March of 2016 and now it looks a lot like the ACT.
For you, we would highly recommend the ACT because it is so much more predictable than the SAT. The ACT hasn't changed much in decades and all four year institutions and universities in the US accept the ACT. There's also a large bank of actual ACT test questions that don't exist for the new SAT just yet. The SAT only recently just released about six practice tests while the ACT has dozens of actual tests that you can practice on.
So how do both tests compare? The ACT has four sections English, Math, Reading and Science. The SAT has Writing, two Math sections and a Reading with no Science section here. Why two Math sections? You have a calculator Math section and a non-calculator Math section. The SAT use to have ten sections that would randomly shift between Reading, Writing and Math, you never knew what you were going to get! Now if we really look at the differences in detail, there are many parallels between the ACT and the SAT.
The table above is a comparison between the ACT and the SAT by section. Overall on the ACT you have more questions to answer - a total of 215 (216 if we include the essay). On the SAT we have 154 questions (155 if we include the essay) but the duration of the ACT is slightly shorter at 175 minutes (215 minutes with the essay) versus the SAT’s 180 minutes (230 minutes with the essay).
So at a first glance it looks like the ACT might be a little bit more difficult to complete within the time constraints because you do have more questions but that is a little deceptive. In fact, if we break it down to the individual subsections, you realize there's not that big a difference in the amount of time you have on sections on the ACT versus the SAT.
Let's start off with the English section. The ACT’s English section and the SAT’s Reading and Language sections are essentially the same thing. You have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions on the ACT which gives you about 36 seconds per question, whereas on the SAT you have roughly 47 seconds per question.
When it comes down to it you actually don't need that much time on either versions of the test. Andy has had almost no students with a problem finishing the English section because it is a primary language for them. And besides, having more questions on the ACT affords you more room for error. The fewer questions on the SAT make every single question that much more important. So one correct or incorrect answer on the SAT can change the score quite a bit compared to the ACT.
As for the Math section you actually have about the same number of questions. You have 60 questions on the ACT and a total of 58 on the SAT. You have 60 minutes to complete those 60 questions on the ACT and about 80 minutes complete 58 questions on the SAT. While that does average out to about 60 seconds per question on the ACT and roughly about 75 seconds per question on the SAT, the SAT has this dreaded non calculator section and it also has several written questions. In other words, free response questions that can be time consuming. And on the newer version of the SAT sthere's been a lot of criticism that there are way too many word problems that take a little bit too long to do.
While you do still have word problems on the ACT, the ACT is reputed to be a little bit more straightforward with their Math questions that mirror more or less what you might encounter in class. So while you do have slightly less time to complete the questions on the ACT, the questions are more direct and there are less of the modeling or word problem type questions which the SAT has received a lot of criticism for.
As far as the Reading sections go, it is true that a lot of people struggle with the ACT Reading section with only 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions. This averages out to about 53 seconds per question while the SAT has a more generous 75 seconds per question. That said we need to talk about the Science section when we talk about the Reading section because the SAT doesn't have a Science section. What they do instead is have a lot of charts and diagrams that you have to read in the Reading section. So more or less, although there isn't the distinct Science section with charts and data that you have to analyze, on the SAT you'll see the same thing in the Reading section.
So some of that extra time that you see in the SAT Reading section will be spent analyzing charts, graphs and tables. On top of that, instead of four passages in the Reading section on the ACT, there are five passages on the SAT Reading section. The SAT Reading passages tend to be a little bit longer as well so overall it does kind of balance itself out.
The big difference between the two tests of course is the Science section. On the ACT, you'll be doing a lot of reading about understanding experiments and analyzing data. What's interesting is that this section, which is exclusive to the ACT, has been diffused and spread throughout all the sections on the SAT. So you'll actually see charts, graphs, diagrams and tables in the Grammar, the two Math and Reading sections. So it's not like you're going to be able to avoid these science topics on the SAT. At least on the ACT they set it apart in its own section so you know what to expect.
Last but not least, the essays are both optional on either test and we would highly recommend you complete it regardless of which test you decide to take. You do get 10 more minutes on the SAT but the kinds of questions that you'll get on the SAT are different to the ACT. In the ACT, you'll typically get a passage; it could be a speech by a renowned politician, a persuasive article in a newspaper, or a short story written by an author. Instead of writing a prospective piece on what you are given you'll actually analyze those passages, essays or speeches, and draft an essay about why it's effective, what's effective about it and how the author presents his or her perspective and arguments.
In the SAT you will be tasked to do something you might not necessarily have done in your literature classes. You're going to be doing more of an expository writing that explains the strengths and weaknesses of how someone argues for rights or speaks about the certain topic. Since there's a lot more reading you will need the additional 10 minutes to complete an effective essay on the SAT.
The ACT is scored out of 36 and the SAT has returned to a 1600 grading scale. The ACT is a little more straightforward, each of the sections are scored out of 36 and they simply average it out. So if you do poorly in one section, a high score on to other sections can bring that average up higher. Whereas on the SAT it's a slightly more complicated scoring rubric, it's not quite one to one or two to one in terms of how many questions you answer correctly and the score that you get.
So overall, after the SAT’s most recent revision the two tests are virtually identical, except for the non-calculator and grading section of the Math section on the SAT. The SAT used to be a test with ten sections that switched randomly between Writing, Reading and Math but it's now structured with four sections that are consistently in the order of Reading, English and two Math sections. The SAT no longer tests archaic vocabulary that we just don't use anymore. It used to emphasize a lot of rote memorization but it now focuses more on common language that we speak on an everyday basis, like the vocabulary that you would encounter in a nationally syndicated newspaper, a lot like the ACT.
Given all of the available resources and predictability of the ACT, we believe that is it is the better test for students to take. Regardless of what you decide is best for you, it’s time to start preparing!