What are the key differences between these two high stakes exams?

High school students applying for college must submit ACT or SAT scores as a part of their applications. A great score on either of these standardized tests can mean significant scholarship money and higher chances of admittance into top schools, not to mention a great feeling of satisfaction.

Students know they need a solid score to be competitive, but a few big questions remain: “Which test should I take?” “On which test will I perform better?” “What varies between the ACT and the SAT?” Knowing the differences in the ACT and the SAT will help you make a more informed decision when choosing the test for which you are best-suited. Many students choose to take each test once. If they perform significantly better on one or the other exam, they can study for that test and take it once again.

1. Format

The first difference you will notice between the SAT and the ACT is the format of the test. First, the SAT is often said to be an exam that tests your problem-solving and critical thinking skills, while the ACT is said to be an exam that tests more of your content knowledge learned in high school. Both descriptions may be somewhat true, but you will need problem-solving and critical thinking skills for the ACT as well, and you will be able to draw on what you have learned in high school for the SAT.

Secondly, the SAT and ACT are divided into sections differently. The SAT has three sections: Math, Critical Reading, and Writing, with ten subsections total: 3 Writing, 3 Reading, 3 Math, 1 Experimental. The Writing section essay will always be first, and the 10-minute Writing subsection will always be last, with all other subsections in random order. The experimental section is not scored and is a section for the makers of the SAT to test new questions. You will not know which section is experimental, or what it will cover, until you get to the test. The ACT is divided into four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional fifth section for Writing.

2. Information Tested

As stated above, the SAT has Reading, Math, and Writing sections, while the ACT also includes a Science section. Typically, the SAT uses much higher-level vocabulary than the ACT does, while the ACT tests math concepts up through trigonometry and the SAT stops at geometry.

These key differences may determine which test is best for you to take. If your vocabulary is dynamite you may lean toward the SAT, but if you’re a total math whiz the ACT may be more geared toward your skillset.

3. Scoring

The ACT is scored on a 1-36 point scale, with each of the four sections receiving a sub-score from 1-36. These four sub-scores are averaged to give a composite score. There is no penalty for guessing on the ACT. The SAT is scored on a scale from 600-2400, with each of the three sections receiving a sub-score from 200-800. These three sub-scores are added together to give a composite score. There is a ¼ point penalty for each incorrect answer on the SAT (it is a correction for guessing; if you don’t know the answer, you are not penalized for leaving it blank, but you are penalized ¼ point for answering incorrectly). This is not the case for the ACT, as no deductions are made for incorrect responses.

4. Which Test Schools Prefer

Years ago, the ACT was preferred by schools in the Midwest, while the SAT was preferred by schools on the East and West coasts. However, this pattern has changed, with almost all colleges accepting either test now. To be sure that you have taken the tests the schools to which you are applying require, double-check online or with an admissions officer from the specific college(s) in question.

5. When the Tests Are Offered

The SAT is offered seven times a year, in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December. The ACT is offered six times a year, in February, April, June, September, October, and December. Each test’s specific date for the year in question can be found online. Be sure to register well in advance of your desired test date to secure a spot at your preferred location and avoid any late registration fees.

With thanks to: Chuck Cohn