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What’s the difference between the SAT test and the ACT? How are they similar?

The SAT and the ACT are the two most popular standardized tests being used for college applications, scholarships, and admissions in the United States.

They originally were fairly “territorial,” with the ACT exam being used by colleges and students in the midwest, and the SAT test being more common in the northeast and on the coasts. Students didn’t really pick one or the other, or even consider that option, really- they just went with the more popular test in the region.

Nowadays both tests have a national reach and students’ options are wide open. You should acquaint yourself with the differences and similarities between the SAT and the ACT and pick the one that’s right for you to give yourself the best odds at building a great college application!  

Do most students take the ACT or the SAT test?

In recent years, the two tests are about equal in terms of number of tests taken yearly in the United States.

The ACT is by far the faster-growing test, a fact I attribute to the good word-of-mouth it’s getting.

Every student I work with seems to have a friend who told them that “the ACT is way easier than the SAT.” I don’t know if I agree with that, but most students will certainly find that one test is a “better fit” for them than the other.

Many students are now taking both the ACT and the SAT exams and picking their higher score. This is an interesting option for students who are curious about both tests and want to push themselves to build the strongest college application possible.

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Recent updates to SAT have made the two tests more similar (particularly the addition of grammer and an essay, and the removal of the analogies section) but they are still significantly different.  

Why are the ACT and the SAT different?

Here’s the heart of the matter: the ACT tries to test “content mastery,” and the SAT tries to test “innate ability.”

  • Content mastery: Mastery of the kind of stuff you would see in a high school class
  • Innate ability: Adapting to confusing questions “on the fly;” critical thinking skills that supposedly cannot be taught

This difference in focus has an important result that you should know about:

  • The SAT is deliberately tricky and deceptive
  • The ACT is not deliberately tricky; it is straightforward

How the ACT is different from the SAT:

  • More straightforward; generally you can trust your instincts on the ACT
  • Tries to assess high school achievement rather than natural ability
  • More like a test you would take in a regular high school class
  • Vocab less important, speed-reading more important
  • Slightly shorter in terms of time (3 hours 25 minutes)
  • More questions total (215 questions)
  • No predictable order of difficulty from question to question
  • ACT math includes trigonometry and matrices
  • Includes a science section (really just testing your ability to interpret charts and graphs)
  • Essay is the last section
  • Essay relates more to your personal life and is more suited to personal examples
  • Subjects are always tested in the same order
  • No guessing penalty – bubble all remaining blanks when you hear “5 minutes left”
  • Scored out of 36 

How the SAT is different from the ACT:

  • More tricky and abstract; instincts are often wrong, especially on the harder questions
  • Tries to assess natural ability rather than high school achievement by being deliberately confusing
  • The SAT is unlike any other test on earth (especially a high school exam)
  • Just figuring out what the question is asking can be hard!
  • On the SAT, vocab is critical; favors students with broad vocabularies
  • Slightly longer in terms of time (3 hours 45 minutes)
  • Less questions total (140)
  • Predictable order of difficulty (easier to harder) in the Math section and the Sentence Completions (SAT vocab) section
  • Short non-multiple-choice Math section
  • SAT Math does not test trigonometry, but it does throw many curveballs and unique, “weird” types of questions (check out these textbooks of mine: SAT Math Level 1 and SAT Math Level 2)
  • No science section
  • Essay is the first section (also check out my books about SAT essay evidence and SAT essay skills)
  • Essay topics are more abstract and “grander” than the ACT – they favor historical examples and references to literature.
  • Subject sections are in unpredictable order (except for the SAT essay, which is always first)
  • Penalized for guessing (but always guess if you can confidently eliminate one or more answers)
  • Scored out of 2400
  • Has a little more prestige to it (folks my age still occasionally discuss their high school SAT scores for entertainment purposes) 

SAT vs ACT: Comparison of Similarities:

  • Both tests attempt to measure the same thing – college readiness. They just do it in very different ways.
  • Both can be roughly compared in terms of score by using a conversion chart.
  • Both are long, boring, and stressful tests.
  • Both are given throughout the year (always on different days, though!)
  • Similar grammar concepts tested.
  • Prep work for one usually will help with the other (just don’t get your strategies mixed up as they are significantly different!)

Though you should double-check with all colleges and scholarships you apply to, most schools will accept either test and treat them equally. I have overheard that there’s a slight bias towards SAT scores especially at the well-known schools on the west and east coasts, but they are both so popular nowadays that the majority of colleges or scholarships shouldn’t have a preference for one over the other.

Related Resources:
SAT vs. ACT: What’s the Difference?
Why you should take BOTH the SAT and the ACT

Prepping the SAT at Home: The Complete Free Guide
Order my SAT prep textbooks
Online Private 1-on-1 SAT / ACT Tutors

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