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Before deciding which test to take, students should understand the differences between the tests. This decision should also take into account the admissions requirements of their desired schools and which test they believe will best showcase the hard work they've done throughout high school.

  • What is Being Tested

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    Although both the SAT and ACT aim to assess college readiness, they actually test different things. The SAT is more of a test of reasoning and verbal ability, while the ACT is more of an achievement test. This means that the types of questions and topics covered vary by test. The SAT covers three broad topics: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. SAT questions are intended to test a student's ability to reason in those areas. The ACT covers English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Both tests also have an optional Essay/Writing section. SAT questions are often described as requiring more reasoning to solve, while ACT questions are described as "straightforward."

    Students who are comfortable with more straightforward questions will likely prefer answering ACT questions. Students who are good with creative reasoning may thrive on the SAT.

  • Timing and Test Layout

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    Test Name ACT SAT
    Test Sections 1. English: 75 questions, 45 minutes
    2. Mathematics: 60 questions, 60 minutes
    3. Reading: 40 questions, 35 minutes
    4. Science: 40 questions, 35 minutes
    5. Writing (optional): 1 question, 40 minutes
    1. Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes
    2. Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes
    3. Non-Calculator Math: 20 questions, 25 minutes
    4. Calculator Math: 38 questions, 55 minutes
    5. Essay (optional): 1 question, 50 minutes
    Question Format Multiple Choice: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science
    Essay Response: Writing
    Multiple Choice: Reading, Writing and Language
    Multiple Choice and Grid-In (Student Produced Response): Non-Calculator Math, Calculator Math
    Essay Response: Essay
    Test Timing Total Time (without Writing): 2 hours 55 minutes
    Total Time (with Writing): 3 hours 35 minutes
    Total Time (without Essay): 3 hours
    Total Time (with Essay): 3 hours 50 minutes

    Students who work well under time pressure may prefer the ACT. Students have a slightly longer amount of time to solve each question on the SAT, so students who feel stressed under time pressure may prefer the SAT format.

  • Subjects Covered and Emphasis

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    The ACT covers additional subject matter including a Science section. The ACT Science section is really about reasoning with specific scientific subject matter. The SAT does not have a "Science" test per se, but students should expect the SAT Reading test to include two science passages. These passages require students to interpret data and find relationships that are implied or stated in the texts.

    On the ACT, students will encounter about four trigonometry questions, and these tend to test very basic concepts. On the SAT, students will encounter trigonometry questions under the "Advanced Topics in Math" domain. Six of the 58 math questions on the SAT will be drawn from the topics of geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers.

    Students who feel comfortable with analyzing visual data and handling scientific concepts may do better with the ACT's Science section. Students who have deep understanding of mathematical logic will prefer the SAT Math sections.

  • The Essay

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    Both the ACT and the SAT have an optional essay. The directions for both tests are available before test day, so students can memorize them ahead of time. The writing prompts on both tests will only vary in the specific topics given. This means that students can be familiar with the Writing/Essay formats and figure out a generic strategy for tackling each one before the day of the test.

    The SAT Essay (50 minutes long) requires students to analyze an author's perspective on a given topic. Students must use evidence from the given passage to explain how the author persuades his or her audience. The SAT Essay has been designed to showcase the analytical writing skills students will need during their college careers.

    The ACT Writing test (40 minutes long) asks students to evaluate multiple perspectives on a given topic. In addition, students must develop their own viewpoint on the topic and describe how their viewpoint relates to the three perspectives given. Students should incorporate the strengths and weaknesses of the three perspectives and their own.

    The ACT Writing test is more inclined to assess how well students can develop their own viewpoints, while the SAT Essay is more of a test of how well a student can analyze rhetorical strategies.

  • Scoring and Interpretation of Scores

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    Neither the SAT nor ACT penalizes test takers for wrong answers. This means that, regardless of which test students take, a guess is always worth a shot.

    The SAT total score is composed of the sum of the two scores from Math (up to 800) and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (up to 800), with a total possible score of 1600. The SAT Essay is assessed in three areas, with each area scored on a scale from 2-8. The ACT composite score (ranging from 1-36) is an average of scores in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The ACT Writing section is assessed using four areas with each area scored on a scale of 1-6. Two scorers mark each essay giving a score in each area out of 12. The scores across all four areas are then averaged producing an overall ACT Writing score from 2-12.

    There are no penalties for wrong answers on either test so students should be comfortable with guessing. The SAT has a total possible score of 1600 (with an additional three scores ranging from 2-8 for the SAT Essay), whereas ACT scores range from 1-36 (with a score from 2-12 for the Writing section).