sat-actDuring the college admissions process, many students have one pressing question: What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT? Though these tests are both widely accepted by undergraduate admissions committees, and they’re both designed to be a measure of student success, each test actually gives admissions counselors different insight into what students have learned and what their potential is for long-term, advanced achievement in the college setting. Before scheduling either of these two key examinations for undergraduate admission, consider the fundamental differences between them in order to discern which one will provide the best outcome for successful admission to a university.

Achievement vs. Aptitude: The Biggest Difference Between the Tests

The most fundamental difference between the SAT and the ACT is one that involves the difference between aptitude and achievement. The SAT is primarily designed as an aptitude test. That is, the SAT’s questions are designed in such a way that they show the student’s capacity to reason, to take in new knowledge, and to perform long-term in a collegiate academic environment. The SAT is not a measure of high school material learned or knowledge retained.

The ACT, on the other hand, is an achievement test. It has virtually no focus on aptitude. This means that the ACT, in contrast the SAT, is focused primarily on what a student has learned during their time in high school and how much of that information was been retained over the past three or four years. The areas of focus on the ACT are more extensive, and extend well outside of basic mathematics and vocabulary. Students who take the ACT should be prepared to essentially complete a cumulative examination concerning their high school coursework.

Beyond Reading and Writing: Major Content Differences Between ACT and SAT

The SAT has traditionally been a two- or three-component examination: verbal and mathematics sections have been the standard for years, and a 2005 revision added a mandatory writing component to the test for enhanced aptitude assessment. The ACT, however, isn’t concerned only 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, but they do provide admissions counselors with additional insight into their academic performance if they complete the section.

Resource: How do I Write a Good College Application Essay?

Questioning: Practical vs. Theoretical Test Prompts

Because the SAT is an aptitude test, its questions are rather abstract and hypothetical. They ask the student how they would reason about a problem, 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. That is not how the ACT’s questions are structured. Instead, those questions 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.

The SAT, by contrast, gives points for all questions. Correct questions earn the most points, while “guessed” 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 on direct questioning.

Two Different Approaches to College Entrance Examination

Though used for the same purpose, the SAT and ACT have key differences that change which topics are addressed, how scores are calculated, and how questions are asked. The difference between the SAT and the ACT concerns aptitude versus achievement, and that means each test might work differently for each student who takes them.

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