Difference Between ACT and SAT | Guide to Test Formats and Questions

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Like in many parts of the world, the United States tests students on their knowledge and college readiness using standardized exams. However, unlike many other countries, the US offers options for fulfilling the college admissions exam requirements. You can either take the SAT or the ACT, depending on various factors. It can be confusing to decide which one to go for, so you should learn about the difference between ACT and SAT.

To help you in this area, we’ve come up with a quick guide that differentiates the two college admissions tests. Read on to gain insight about these two major exams and on which one you should take.

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Table of Contents

A Brief Background Information on the ACT and SAT

Before we go ahead and list down the differences between the two standardized college admissions tests, it would be best to give a quick background about them. So here’s a short round-up of the basics that you need to know about these tests.

What does ‘SAT’ stand for?

The College Board, the folks who created and manage these exams, mostly refer to this as the SAT, but it was initially an acronym. Initially, it stood for ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’. These SAT meanings aren’t used very often anymore, so you can just refer to the test with its three-letter name - SAT.

What does ‘ACT’ stand for?

Like the SAT, the ACT also used to be an acronym. When it was first created in the late 1950s, ACT stood for "American College Test Program" or 'American College Test' if you want to be more technical. Today, however, the old ACT meaning is not officially used anymore.

Why should you take these tests?

Although this is beginning to change, for many years, most universities and colleges required standardized college admissions test scores from their high school level applicants. As both the ACT and SAT are categorized as such, the test results from any of these two were typically used in compliance with this requirement. These scores, however, are not always required from high school graduates anymore. However, receiving a good score on the exam could potentially make you stand out from other applicants.

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT

In many cases, SAT and ACT scores are also used to apply for scholarships and financial aid grants. So if you wish to lighten the financial burden that comes with a college education, doing well on these exams can help you out. Knowing your percentiles on SAT compared to ACT is also helpful.

When can you take the ACT and SAT?

Again, because these standardized tests are for college admissions, both are meant to be taken while the test-taker is in high school. When do you take the SAT and ACT exactly? There are no restrictions as to who can take these exams and what age they should be in. So technically, you can take it at any point of your academic career. However, the scores for both are valid for five years so experts say that the earliest that you should take the exams should be in the 8th grade. If you're not in high school, you can get a GED, with the help of the best GED prep books we reviewed, and then take SAT or ACT.

Both exams are also available to be taken at various points of the year. At least seven test days are scheduled within a year so you can easily take a pick which one works for you best.

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The SAT is scheduled in the months of March/April (depending on the state), May, June, August, October, November, and  December. The ACT, on the other hand, has test schedules in the months of February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. Some states have some variations in test dates but these are the most common schedules nationwide.

If you’re wondering when you should take the exam, the answer will not be a clear-cut one. It depends on the student’s school calendar, activities, and preparation schedule. However, the fact that both tests are available nearly all year round makes it more flexible and friendly.

Can you take both the SAT and ACT?

Yes, if you want to. There are no restrictions that will prevent you from taking any of the two if you already took one previously. In fact, some experts note that a growing number of test takers opt to take both exams to better cover all their bases.

What about the scores? Will all of them be sent to the university or college you’re applying to?

Both the SAT and ACT will let you choose which scores to send, so it’s safe to say that you can also choose which one to send if you took both exams.

In any case, most universities and colleges do not have any preference over the two as long as you send your scores accordingly. And if you’re applying somewhere with a preferred exam, converting your score is possible so you don’t really have to worry about choosing one over the other.

How to Study for the SAT and ACT?

The beauty of standardized tests is that the preparation process for all of them is relatively the same and not that hard as long as you have good prep books like these for the SAT or online classes as recommended by us. You just really need to map out a study plan to ensure that you’ll cover all of the areas that you need to deal with if you’re going to ace the exam. You can pretty much craft a specific routine for test preps and just alter it a bit to better suit the specific exam you’re taking.

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Your measures in how to study for the SAT could also apply for the ACT. However, there should be a few significant differences which are in line with the differences of the two standardized tests to ensure that you’ll be able to thoroughly prepare for both. Not all ACT tips can double as tips for SAT so don’t try to use the exact same research and methods in preparation for these two very different exams.

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT

Which is easier, the ACT or SAT?

To be very honest with you, it’s nearly impossible to tell which one of the two is harder or easier. They have different approaches to testing a student’s college readiness. The measure for what’s hard or easy is also impossible to quantify since everyone is different. However, our points below might help enlighten you and let you gain a good idea on which test would be more ideal for you to take.

8 Key Differences Between the ACT and SAT

Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, it’s time to discuss the very things that set them apart. To make the process less overwhelming, we’ve listed down their major distinctions below.

Core Values

As their names and histories would suggest, it can be quite easy to see just how different the SAT and ACT are from each other. These details would clue you in about their values and what they’re all about.

Take the ACT, for starters. Originally known as the American College Test, it was created to test high school students about what they already know. The SAT, on the other hand, was all about testing a student’s college readiness.

However, its format is more geared towards testing one’s aptitude, as detailed in its name, Scholastic Aptitude Test. This made it more focused on testing a student’s intelligence and natural ability to learn.

With these details alone, you can already pretty much have a good idea which one might be a better option for you. Combine it with all of the other details below and you might just be able to make a solid decision right away.

Test Structure

This should be an expected difference between the SAT and ACT since they are not the same exam. Their test structures may share some similarities but they’re largely different and easy to tell apart.

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT

Let’s start with the similarities they share. First off, both contain an optional essay portion. You can certainly choose to skip such sections but if you do well in it, you’ll be awarded a few good points that can also help raise your total score. Both also contain math sections, language, and reading portions. We have written more comprehensively on SAT math topics and SAT reading practice.

As for their differences, let’s start with the allocated test time. The ACT test format is considered shorter even if there are more questions and subjects included in it. Its total test time including the essay portion is 3 hours and 35 minutes. How many questions are on the ACT, though? With 216 test questions, it can really subject you to some time crunch.

The SAT, on the other hand, runs for 3 hours and 50 minutes but only has 155 test questions so you’ll have more time for each question in this exam.

Areas of Coverage

As mentioned above, both the ACT and SAT will test your reading, math, writing, and language skills. However, it should still be noted that these two exams still have different coverages because there’s also science in the list of ACT subjects.

The subjects mentioned above are all of the included SAT sections so it tends to free you from having to work on another area of study in preparation for it.

This can also make it a more favorable choice if science is not your strongest subject.

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT

Despite the similarities in the subjects they test, the actual focus of each section tends to differ in these exams. The ACT is heavy on vocabulary words in its Language section. The SAT, on the other hand, is more particular about grammar and style in its English section.

The math sections of the two are really different as well. While both are heavily about algebra, the ACT also has a lot more questions on geometry and trigonometry. There are also certain topics in ACT math that won’t be touched in the SAT.

Scoring System

This is another item that you shouldn’t be surprised about because the SAT and ACT are administered by different organizations. Their score ranges should already clue you in that the SAT scoring system would be a bit more complicated than the ACT’s.

Just how different are their scoring methods? Well, for starters, SAT scores range from 400 to 1600. You can get about 200 to 800 points in each section as your answers are scaled. The College Board, the folks behind the SAT, arrives at the final numbers using a method they ‘equating’. It’s technically different from curving the scores relative to other test takers as it takes into account the variations in various SAT test date.

You might be wondering, how come there are only 400 to 1600 points when there are 3 different sections in the exam. The SAT EBRW or the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scoring section is actually the end result of the combination of the scores of the Reading and Writing & Language sections. So instead of getting scored for three separate portions, the SAT only really has two scored sections.

It should also be noted that back in the day, the SAT punishes wrong answers to test questions with deductions. They don’t do this anymore nowadays so you can risk taking a guess in some of your answers.

The ACT, on the other hand, has a scaled score range of 1 to 36. The scores from all of the sections are then averaged to create your composite score which also has a range of 1 to 36. Like the SAT, the ACT scales their scores to ensure that no test day is easier or more difficult than others. This gives all test-takers a level playing field even if they won’t get the exact same test questions. In their case, they analyze the average scores from all of the ACT exam dates to come up with their final numbers.

Rules for the Math Section

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT

A lot of differences between the ACT and SAT lie in the math section. Aside from the topics that were mentioned above, we’d also want to highlight that these two exams have different rules when testing students in this subject. This particularly has to do with the use of calculators.

So can you use a calculator on the ACT? Yes, this test is actually more lenient when it comes to calculator use. You can use one on every math question in the test. They have a strong policy regarding the device, however, so make sure to stick with those. It’s also crucial to get to know the ACT calculator list to let you make the most of the fact that they’ll let you use one during the exam.

The SAT, on the other hand, won’t allow you to use a calculator on some questions. However, they’re more lenient when it comes to what kinds of calculators you can bring.

Math Section Score Weight

Another notable difference between ACT math vs SAT math is the weight of the portions in your overall score. In the SAT, the math section accounts for half of the total points. In the ACT, it only accounts for 25% of the total points. This means that if you’re not that good in math, you can still make up for what you lack in that section in other areas.

Allowed Retake Times

The number of times that you’re allowed to take these two exams also vary. The College Board allows you to take the SAT as many times as you want. It’s different for the ACT, though.

How many times can you take the ACT? You’re only limited to take this test 12 times.

Can you take the SAT after high school? Yes, you definitely can. How about the ACT? The answer here’s a yes, too. However, some schools only accept SAT and ACT scores from high school student applicants so you might not really have to take them after you graduate from high school.

Level of Complexity

Is the SAT hard? Is the ACT harder than the SAT? The answer to these can be quite difficult to quantify as what’s difficult depends on one test-taker to another. However, in terms of complexity, a lot of people agree that the SAT is more complex than the ACT.

If we’re also going to quantify the level of difficulty of the two per question, many would agree that the SAT is harder if you’re looking at it from a per question basis. The good thing is you’ll have more time to answer each as compared to the ACT questions.

The math section of the SAT is also deemed to be a bit harder than the ACT’s.

All of ACT’s math questions require multiple choice answers so you still get a chance to guess the correct one even when you’re rushing to finish on time. The SAT has grid-in math questions wherein you’ll really need to compute for your answers in order to get a score.

Is the ACT easier than the SAT then? The answer here also greatly depends on your knowledge and abilities. While it has fewer questions and a more balanced scoring system, it also covers more math concepts and an entire science section. So if you’re not quite confident in those areas, you might also not find the ACT any easier than the SAT.

Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT

Since both SAT and ACT scores are now widely accepted by various universities in the US, you might be wondering which of the two should you get. Choosing can be a tough task because both standardized tests appear to be equals in terms of challenges and benefits.

So which one do you choose? It all depends on your strengths and preferences. There are certain characteristics these two exams have that might make them work better for you, so you should be on the lookout for such.

If you still can’t decide, you can also just opt to take both. Preparations might be trickier and harder but taking both tests will let you cover more bases than necessary so it might be a better option for some.

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