During the college admissions process, many students have one pressing question. What is the difference between the SAT and ACT? These tests measure a student’s success in high school. They are also widely accepted by undergraduate admissions committees. Each test gives admissions counselors different insights into what students have learned and demonstrates their long-term potential for advanced achievement in the college setting. Before scheduling either one of these examinations for undergraduate admission, consider the fundamental differences between them to discern which one will provide the best outcome for successful acceptance to a university.
Achievement vs. Aptitude: The Biggest Difference Between the Tests
The most fundamental difference between the SAT and the ACT involves the difference between aptitude and achievement. The SAT is an aptitude test. The SAT originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but the acronym was dropped as the test evolved over the years. The SAT is the most common testing tool that colleges and universities use to determine whether students are ready for college-level course work. It also determines if the student has the potential to excel in a collegiate academic environment.
Taking the SAT is an important step in a student’s academic life. A good score on this exam provides the student with a competitive edge against other students in gaining entrance into top universities. The answers to the questions on the SAT show the student’s ability to reason and their capacity to take in new knowledge. These abilities are an indication as to how a student will perform long-term in a collegiate academic environment. The SAT is not a measure of high school material learned or knowledge retained.
Questioning: Practical vs. Theoretical Test Prompts
Because the SAT is an aptitude test, its questions are rather abstract and hypothetical. The exam asks the student to use their reasoning abilities to solve a problem. It measures a student’s problem-solving and analytical skills to identify a problem, search for relevant information, develop a strategy to overcome the problem, applying the strategy, and finally resolve the problem. The questions also ask how they would use their skills to find a solution to a complex question and try to assess the student’s capacity for using skills to achieve positive outcomes.
The SAT gives points for all questions. Correct questions earn the most points while guessing or incorrect answers contribute only a fraction of the points to a final test score. In this way, the SAT rewards guessing on theoretical questions while the ACT rewards only correct answers to direct questioning.
That is not how the questions on the ACT are structured. Instead, the questions on the ACT are direct. They ask students about specific concepts that they learned and ask them to either identify or apply them. Students who do so successfully earn points for the question, while those questions answered incorrectly simply do not contribute to a final score.
Beyond Reading and Writing: Major Content Differences Between SAT and ACT
Let us now take a closer look at the differences between the SAT and ACT. The SAT has traditionally been a two- or three-component examination: verbal and mathematics sections have been the standard for years. A 2005 revision added a mandatory writing component to the test for enhanced aptitude assessment. The College Board announced in January of 2021 the elimination of two sections of the SAT. The SAT Essay and SAT Subject Test have always been optional, but the core makeup of the SAT remains the same.
There are four sections of the SAT. These sections are:
• Evidence-Based Reading
• Writing and Language
• Math: Calculator
• Math: No Calculator
The SAT had an optional Essay category, but this was discontinued after June 2021. The Format of the SAT is as follows:
SAT: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
The reading section has 52 standard multiple-choice questions that have a time limit of 100 minutes to complete. The writing section has 44 multiple-choice questions with a time limit of 35 minutes to complete. The content of the reading and writing portion of the SAT features relevant words in context, command of the evidence, expression of ideas, and standard English conventions.
The SAT has two mathematics sections that take a total time limit of 80 minutes. The mathematics section without a calculator has 20 questions with a time limit of 25 minutes. The mathematics section where exam takers can use a calculator has 38 questions and has a time limit of 55 minutes.
There are 45 standard multiple-choice questions and 13 student-produced responses. The student-produced questions do not have multiple-choice answers that exam takers can choose from for the correct answer. Instead, exam takers must solve the math problem and grid their answers on an answer sheet. The math section increases in difficulty from the first problem to the last. Topics include basic calculations, algebra, advanced math, and data analysis.
Scores on the SAT may be confusing when looking at the raw scores, scaled scores, and total scores. When you hear someone say they got 1300 on their SAT, they are quoting the total score. The total score on the SAT is from 400-1600.
The evidence-based reading and writing section is worth 200-800 points, and the math section is also worth 200-800 points. The College Board uses a conversion chart to convert the raw scores for each section into scaled scores for each section. Then the College Board adds the scaled scores to come up with the total score.
The American College Test, on the other hand, is an achievement test that does not focus on aptitude. In contrast to the SAT, the ACT primarily focuses on what a student learned during their time in high school and how much of that information they retained over the past three or four years. The focus areas on the ACT are more extensive and extend well outside of basic mathematics and vocabulary. Students who take the ACT should be prepared to complete a cumulative examination concerning their high school coursework. The areas of focus on the ACT include:
• Writing (optional)
The time it takes to complete the ACT exam is 2 hours and 55 minutes without the optional writing section and 3 hours and 55 minutes with the optional writing section.
College admissions counselors use the ACT to evaluate a student’s application and determine a student’s suitability for college entry. This exam measures a student’s ability to recall what they learned while in high school. The more a student can remember, the better chance they have of scoring high on the ACT. Therefore, the student needs to put a great deal of effort into learning new information and skills while in high school.
The reading portion of the ACT exam has 40 multiple-choice questions and a time limit of 35 minutes. There are four subsections. These include Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. The types of questions in the Reading section include:
• Big Picture
• Vocabulary in Context
• Little Details
• Development and Function
This section features 75 multiple-choice questions with a 45-minute time limit. The English portion of the ACT exam focuses on grammar, style, usage, mechanics, and rhetorical skills. The type of questions in the English section includes:
• Forming and joining sentences
• Using commas, dashes, and colons
• Using nonessential clauses and relative pronouns
• Using correct verb tense and form
Math problems on the ACT are arranged in the order of difficulty from easiest to hardest. The estimated amount of time, the number of steps, and the number of math concepts it takes to solve the math problem determine the difficulty level. There are 60 math problems to solve within a one-hour time limit. The math section roughly has 20 easy, 20 medium, and 20 hard math problems. The types of math problems on the ACT and the general order in which they appear are:
• Pre-algebra • Elementary algebra
• Intermediate algebra
• Coordinate geometry
• Plane geometry
The science section has 40 questions multiple-choice questions with a 35-minute time limit. The questions require you to read and respond to a combination of paragraphs, charts, graphs, and tables. Some of the questions involve mathematical calculations. Question formats include data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints.
Topics in the science section include biology, chemistry, earth/space sciences, and physics. You do not need to specialize or have background knowledge in one or more of these subjects. The science section is about demonstrating your ability to interpret the passages correctly.
The writing section is optional. Yet, it is tempting to do this section because it can add a few points to your overall score. This section has a 40-minute time limit for you to plan, write, and edit an essay. The exam presents a contemporary issue and three different perspectives on this issue. You are to write an essay that states your position on the issue, address the three perspectives, and explain the relationship between the three perspectives. Practice writing a few essays using this format before you decide to write an essay in this section.
Knowing how the ACT is scored can help you focus on getting the highest possible score you can get. You receive a raw score for each of the four subject area sections. Each question in the subject area section receives one point. The raw scores are the number of correct answers you have in each section. Each raw score is converted into a scaled score of 1 to 36. The average of these four scaled scores is the composite score.
The composite score is the number everyone quotes for college and university admissions. A median ACT composite score of 20 is a score that will place you in the top 50 percentile of exam takers. This score is the minimum you should strive to achieve.
The ACT, however, is not just concerned with those two subject areas. Instead, the ACT includes four required areas of assessment: Mathematics, reading, English, and science. A writing assessment is included with the exam, but that section is optional. Students receive no penalty for leaving the writing section incomplete. The writing section does provide admissions counselors with additional insight into their academic performance if they complete the section.
Two Different Approaches to College Entrance Examination
The SAT and ACT have key differences in how topics are addressed, how scores are calculated, and how questions are asked. The difference between the SAT and the ACT concerns aptitude versus achievement. That means each test might work differently for each student who takes them. So, what is the difference between the SAT and ACT? The differences in format, scoring, and timing between the two exams have already been discussed. Here is a summary of some additional differences between these to college entrance exams:
Differences in the Content of the Questions
Roughly 75% of both tests overlap in measuring basic reading comprehension, writing in standard English, and mathematical reasoning. Differences between the two exams occur in these areas:
• The ACT has a science section
• The SAT has scientific questions in both sections of the exam
• The ACT focuses on math concepts from basic arithmetic to trigonometry
• The SAT focuses heavily on algebra, graph reading, trend-mapping, and basic statistics
• The ACT reading section has shorter passages that are consistent in difficulty
• The SAT reading section has long passages that vary in difficulty
The way in which questions are asked is different between the SAT and ACT. The SAT asks evidence-supported questions in chronological order based on the text in reference. The ACT generally does not have evidence-supported questions. Instead, the ACT asks random questions based on the text in reference.
There is a difference between the math sections of the SAT and ACT. The SAT allows exam takers to use a calculator on one of its two sections. The exam also provides a math formula reference guide. The math section on the SAT makes up 50% of your overall score because there are only two sections on the exam.
The ACT only has one math section where you can use a calculator, but there is no math formula reference guide. The math section represents 25% of your overall score. The science section of the ACT also features some mathematical problems.
Colleges and universities use the SAT and ACT as one of many factors in determining a student’s readiness for college-level academic work. Both exams have the same difficulty level, take about the same amount of time to complete, and cover many of the same subjects. It is up to you to decide which exam will give you the best opportunity to get the highest score possible. Do your research and take the SAT or ACT prep courses to have a successful result on these exams.