SAT vs. ACT Test Comparison

  • Score Choice: Unlike the SAT, you may choose which ACT scores you want to send to colleges. The College Board always sends all your SAT scores together. Even if a college says they'll just look at the highest score you got, they see every score you have - you can't hide a score. For the ACT, however, you must specify which scores you want to send to a college. So that test that you totally tanked can be our little secret.
  • No Guess Penalty: The ACT does not take off points for wrong answers. You should always fill in an answer for every question. If you are about to run out of time and there are questions you haven't gotten to yet, guess something. 
  • NEVER LEAVE ANY BLANKS FOR ANY REASON! You'll pick up a couple of points for any correct guesses.
    There's no secret method for guessing. If you want to always guess C and J or B and H, whatever. Some people like to pick choices they've chosen the least in that section so far. Some people have a set letter combination they always guess. There's no real pattern here, no secret code of answer choices. Just guess something. It's important to note that we don't mean to say you should haphazardly guess on every question. Accuracy is still more important than bulk. Don't be afraid to take your time and be sure of your answers on all the questions you get to. Our point is that if you do run out of time, or if you are unsure of an answer, just pick something. No blanks.
  • No Vocab: In the ACT, the Reading Test is entirely passage-based. There are no sentence completions or other highly vocabulary-dependent questions. Of course, your vocabulary level will still have an effect on your ability to read and interpret the passages, and there may be vocabulary-in-context questions about the passages, like those on the SAT. But overall, vocab is much less important.
  • Essay is Optional: If you're terrible at essays, you don't have to do one. However, be forewarned that some schools may require the ACT essay, so it might not really be optional for you.
  • Timing: This is the biggest problem kids have with the ACT. Unlike the SAT, where each subject is broken up into three sections, on the ACT each subject has just one long section. This can be exhausting. The actual time per question you have is roughly similar to (and actually a bit higher than) that of the SAT, but it's more of a drain on your attention span and endurance. Furthermore, since the SAT sections are split up, you can totally bomb one math section and still do well on the others to salvage your math score. On the ACT, one hard question can mess up your timing for the whole math test. So timed practice is very important.
  • More Math Content: The ACT will contain some higher level concepts that aren't on the SAT, most noticeably some basic trigonometry. Also, all those formulas the SAT gives you at the beginning of the section? On the ACT, you've got to know them by heart.
  • Fewer line references in Passages: On the SAT, virtually every Reading question gives you a specific line reference. Most ACT questions do not give you line references. The ACT questions themselves are often very straightforward, but you'll have to spend more time searching for the answer than you would on the SAT.
  • Science: Obviously, the inclusion of the science section is the one of the biggest content differences between the tests. The science section generally doesn't require actual science knowledge so much as an ability to interpret scientific data. But if you're bad at interpreting scientific data, you won't enjoy this.

ACT or SAT Test: So Which One is Easier?

Well, that depends on what you mean by "easier." The popular conception of the ACT is that it's more straightforward than the SAT. There's less trickiness, fewer reasoning questions, more content questions. The ACT, they say, is more like the material you get in school.

But if you look at the two tests, it's obvious that this isn't true at all. The ACT is a reasoning test. It has plenty of difficult questions that will ask you to jump through mental hoops. It has plenty of RTFQ and Fools Gold choices in the Math, plenty of tricky inference questions in the English and Reading. The ACT is not a Subject Test. Yes, it expects you to know more content than the SAT does, but not that much more. The ACT still covers a lot of the same concepts as the SAT. The Math Test still gives you a lot of the math formulas you need. The Reading questions are still based entirely on the passage, not your own knowledge. And even the ominous-sounding Science Test requires very little actual science knowledge.

The biggest difference in kids' responses to the test is the timing. Some students might actually prefer one longer section to multiple shorter sections, but doing one long one-hour section without a break can really be exhausting. Also, on average you've got less time per question on the ACT:

SAT ACT
Ques. Min. Min/Q Ques. Min. Min/Q
Writing/English 45 35 .78 75 45 .53
Math 54 70 1.2 60 60 1
Reading 67* 70 1.04 40 35 .875
*includes 18 sentence completions

Some people say that the ACT is better for students with strong math skills because of the higher math concepts and the Science. Others say it's better for those with strong verbal skills because the Reading is harder, and even the science is similar to passage interpretation. Your responses may vary.

Ultimately, the tests are more similar than many people believe. But there are also real differences, and some kids really do perform better on one than on the other. If you're not sure which one would be easier for you, just take some practice tests. Try one of each and see which test is a better fit for you.

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