SAT vs ACT 2017-12-01T04:34:35+00:00

The SAT and ACT are college readiness exams that are accepted by every four-year US college. Applicants to most colleges have to submit scores from at least one of the two tests, though colleges don’t care which. The SAT and ACT are also different tests, each catering to slightly different types of learners. So here’s the big question:

Should my child take the SAT or the ACT?

This guide is going to help you answer that question. (And if you're in a rush you can download a copy to save for later.)

Table of Contents

Part One: What’s the Difference Between the SAT and ACT?

Part Two: How Do I Decide Which Test To Take?

Part Three: SAT Versus ACT: Interactive Quiz

PART ONE

What's the Difference Between the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and ACT differ in a handful of ways that show why your child might prefer one over the other, resulting in a small but meaningful bump in scores. However, before breaking down how the SAT and ACT are different, let’s talk about how the two tests are similar. You’ll find in this section that the similarities drastically outweigh the differences, which hopefully take some pressure off of this decision!

How are the SAT and ACT similar?

  • Every four-year US college accepts both the SAT and ACT.
  • Both the SAT and ACT are administered throughout the US.
  • The SAT and ACT have roughly the same format: three hours; four testing sessions; one optional essay.
  • Both the SAT and ACT broadly cover the same high school coursework.

Overview of the SAT

Scored out of 1600, the SAT tests students’ proficiency in math, reading, writing and information literacy. The total score out of 1600 points is a sum of two equally weighted Sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. And each of these Sections are split into two test-taking sessions.

Exam SAT
Section Evidence-Based Reading & Writing Math
Points 800 800
Test Reading Writing & Language Math - Calculator Portion Math - No-Calculator Portion
Format

52 Questions

65 Minutes

44 Questions

35 Minutes

38 Questions

55 Minutes

20 Questions

25 Minutes

Types of Questions

Four single passages and one pair of passages

All multiple choice questions

Subjects of passages:

  • US and World Literature
  • History and Social Studies
  • Science

Four complete passages

All multiple choice questions

Subjects of passages:

  • Career-related topics
  • Humanities
  • History and Social Studies
  • Science

30 multiple choice questions

Eight student-produced response "grid-in" questions

15 multiple choice questions

Five student-produced response "grid-in" questions

Skills Tested

Think carefully about an author's message

Understand structure and development of text

Put information together to understand a topic

Conventions of punctuation

Effective language use

Organization

Development

Sentence structure

Heart of Algebra

Problem Solving and Data Analysis

Passport to Advanced Math

Additional Topics in Math

How does the SAT translate to high school class work?

  • About 40% of the SAT tests proficiency in math topics students gain in Math classes.
  • About 20% of the SAT tests reading comprehension skills students learn across English and History/ Social Studies classes.
  • About 25% of the SAT tests proficency in the conventions of the written English language students gain mostly in English classes.
  • About 15% of the SAT tests information literacy students gain across Math, Science and History/ Social Studies classes.

Overview of the ACT

Scored out of 36 points, the ACT also tests students’ proficiency in math, reading,  writing and informational literacy. (There is a Science Test that tests information literacy and reading comprehension, not in-depth knowledge of science content.) Unlike the SAT, the ACT is an average of four equally-weighted Tests: English, Math, Reading and Science. Each of these Tests represents one test-taking session.

Exam ACT
Section/ Test English Math Reading Science
Points 36 36 36 36
Format

75 Questions

45 Minutes

60 Questions

60 Minutes

40 Questions

35 Minutes

40 Questions

35 Minutes

Types of Questions

Five passages

All multiple choice questions

All multiple choice questions

Four passages

Subjects of passages

  • Prose fiction
  • Humanities
  • Social studies
  • Natural sciences

All multiple choice questions

Three passages

Subjects of passages

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Earth/ Space Sciences
  • Physics

All multple choice questions

Skills Tested

Pronouns

Organization and rhetoric

Verbs

Mean, structure and diction

Punctuation, run-ons and fragments

Pre-Algebra

Elementary Algebra

Intermediate Algebra

Coordinate Geometry

Plane Geometry

Trigonometry

Find information stated in a passage

Find information that's implied in a passage

Data representation

Research summaries

Conflicting viewpoints

How does the ACT translate to high school class work?

  • About 25% of the ACT tests proficiency in math topics students gain in Math classes.
  • About 30% of the ACT tests reading comprehension skills students learn across English and History/ Social Studies classes.
  • About 25% of the ACT tests proficiency in the conventions of the written English language students gain mostly in English classes.
  • About 20% of the ACT tests information literacy students gain across Math, Science and History/ Social Studies classes.

What's information literacy?

  • The American Library Association defines information literacy as “a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.’”
  • Both the SAT and ACT test information literacy as it is defined above. They ask students to interpret charts and graphs, analyze data in tables, comprehend passages about topics in science-related fields and more.
  • Information literacy on the SAT appears throughout the Math, Reading and Writing and Language Tests. On the ACT information literacy appears mostly on the Science Test.
  • We're using a new word here, but don't worry; information literacy isn't foreign to the high school curriculum. It encompasses data interpretation and analysis students learn across Math, Science and History/ Social Studies classes.

Key Takeaways

  • Both tests broadly cover the same material students learn throughout high school.
    • While the SAT and ACT differ slightly in layout and content, they both broadly cover the same concepts in math, reading, writing and information literacy. It's even unlikely that a student will score much higher on one than the other.
  • The SAT has more math than the ACT.
    • If your child is significantly stronger in the humanities subjects, notably History/ Social Studies and English, his or her skills are more represented on the ACT. Conversely if your child is strongest in Math, he or she might fare better on the SAT.
  • Neither the SAT nor the ACT test deep knowledge of science topics.
    • Don’t let the presence of the ACT Science Test fool you; the skills tested on ACT Science are represented across throughout the SAT.

The Differences Between the SAT Essay and the ACT Essay

The SAT and ACT both include an optional essay, scored separately. So goes the whole of both tests, the SAT Essay and ACT Essay generally test the same skills, with some small differences. The differences between the two essays, however, are not so different that your child should choose one test over the other based on this section.

Exam ACT SAT
Section Essay Essay
Allotted Time 30 Minutes 50 Minutes
Scoring

Students receive two scores for the essay:

  1. A combined English/Writing score out of 36
  2. A Writing Test subscore on a scale of 2 through 12

The Essay is scored separately ffrom the resr of the test.

Students receive three scores, each on a scale of 2 through 8:

  1. Reading
  2. Analysis
  3. Writing

The Essay is scored separately ffrom the resr of the test.

Prompt Based on two points of view on one issue, students must take a position and support that position with specific reasons and examples. Students must analyze an argument to explain how the author builds his or her argument to persuade an audience.
Is it optional? Yes Yes

Should my child take the Essay section?

  • Every college either requires the essay, recommends it, or does not consider the essay. Your child should take the essay if it is required at the college(s) he or she will apply to.
  • Most students sit for the exam before solidifying their college lists. If that’s the case, it’s wise to take the essay just in case.

Students Everywhere Can Take Either the SAT or ACT

Both tests are administered throughout the United States; your child can take either test no matter where you live or what colleges he or she plans to apply to.

Additionally, both the SAT and ACT are administered seven to eight times per year, roughly at the same times. Your general strategy for when and how often to take the test shouldn’t change with the test your child plans to take.

ACT Test Dates SAT Test Dates
Second week of December First week of December
Second week of February Second week of March
Second week of April First week of May
Second week of June First week of June
Second week of July Last week of August
Second week of September First week of October
First week of November

How do you stay on top of test dates?

  • As SAT and ACT test dates come and go, students are prone to falling behind schedule. Of course with a full plate of sports, schoolwork, activities and friends, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds will almost undoubtedly deprioritize test prep.
  • The best way for parents to make sure students don’t fall behind schedule is to be aware of upcoming test dates. And we created an email newsletter to alert families of every deadline they need to know.
PART TWO

How Do I Decide Which Test To Take?

There’s one sure-fire way to predict which test your child will score higher on: take a practice test of both. With two full-length practice test scores in hand, you can use a concordance table to simply compare scores. And, voila! The higher comparative score wins. Here’s how it works:

1 Take a Full-Length Practice Test for the SAT and ACT

Download a practice test PDF and answer sheet or purchase an SAT Blue Book and ACT Red Book to access official practice tests.

To produce the most accurate picture of how your child will fare on either test, make sure he or she takes each in regular testing conditions. That means timing each test-taking session with the directions stated on the practice test.

2 Compare Your Child's Performance On Each Test

Using an SAT to ACT Concordance chart or our score conversion tool below, you can get an apples-to-apples comparison of test performance.

on the SAT is equivalent to on the ACT.

on the ACT is equivalent to on the SAT.

3 Commit to the Test with the Higher Score

Practice test scores from the SAT and ACT provide a clear picture of how your child is likely to perform on test day for either test. If one score is higher than the other, your child should almost certainly commit to that test and begin a focused prep plan.

The Most Important Thing Your Child Can Do Is Commit to One Test

One common pitfall of families stuck making this tricky decision is not making one at all. By simply committing to one test as quickly as possible, your child is more likely to reach his or her full potential score, no matter which test he or she chooses. Keep in mind that SAT and ACT prep is a finite resource; high school sophomores and juniors mostly don’t have time to adequately prepare for both the SAT and ACT, nor should they. In our experience, splitting prep time in half will leave points on the board, and spending too much time prepping is just too much standardized testing for almost any teenager.

What if my child gets the same score on both tests?

  • If your child happened to get similar scores with no clear winner, simply go with his or her gut.
  • The subtle differences between the SAT and ACT in content, question format and pacing that cater to different types of learners can be hard to put into words. If your child felt more comfortable taking one test than the other, he or she is likely to score higher on that test.
PART THREE

SAT Versus ACT: Interactive Quiz

1 / 4

Is either the SAT or ACT required in your state?

2 / 4

What's your child's most recent PSAT score? (If he or she has one.)

What's your child's most recent SAT score? (If he or she has one.)

What's your child's most recent ACT score? (If he or she has one.)

3 / 4

Approximately how many hours have you prepped for the SAT?

  • Approximately how many hours have you prepped for the ACT?

4 / 4

How does your child's math ability compare to his or her ability in English and history/ social studies?

Favors SAT

Favors ACT

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