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4 Key Differences Between the SAT & ACT Exams


Several families I work with have recently asked me to clarify the key differences between the SAT and ACT exams. Do colleges prefer one over the other? Do both tests require students to write essays? Does the ACT  really benefit math/science-oriented students because it includes an additional Science section? Both tests are approximately the same length, include written components, and are regarded as equal by most universities, but as far as I’m concerned that is where many of the similarities end.

While the prevailing sentiment engendered by most guidance counselors is that the differences between the two tests are quite minimal, I have had an altogether different experience. One student I worked with recently, for instance, had trouble scoring above an 1800 on the SAT. Yet, her score on the ACT test was a 29.5 (equivalent to a 2050 on the SAT). Conventional wisdom would suggest that this student had a greater aptitude for Math and Science, but she had only ever taken two AP classes in high school: AP English and AP History. I’ve prepared students for each exam and have truthfully found them to be markedly different. Here are a few key differences that I hope will help you make an informed decision when it comes time to choose which test is right for you.

1) Time-Management: The format of the SAT and ACT could not be more different. The SAT features 10 “shorter” sections and asks students to frequently revisit sections at random. For instance, a student may be asked to answer Math questions on sections 2, 5, and 10. The ACT, on the other hand, features four “longer” sections, each of which focuses exclusively on a single subject. Ultimately, I find that the SAT benefits more versatile test-takers who don’t struggle with time-management issues and who can effortlessly switch gears between subjects. For students who utilize different test-taking strategies depending on the subject, I would suggest the ACT exam because it allows you to more easily focus your attention on a specific subject.

2) The ACT Does Not Test on Vocabulary: I hesitate to say that the ACT offers an “easier” English section, but the truth of the matter is that its questions are more straightforward and generally result in higher scores with the students I work with. I believe that the reason for this is twofold. First, the ACT does not ask vocabulary questions of any kind. The SAT will usually ask 15-18 vocabulary related questions. Second, the SAT asks many more inference-based questions that test the ability of students to detect and discern the subtle nuances of a passage. The ACT asks far fewer sub-textual questions, instead opting to test students on function and form.

3) The ACT’s Science Section is Not as Hard as One Might Think: Most students are intimidated by the ACT because it features an additional Science section that the SAT does not, but you don’t have to be a science wizard to perform well on this section. The Science component of the ACT generally asks students to interpret various data sets (i.e. charts, graphs…etc.). The truth of the matter is that the ACT Science section seldom tests students on topics that would require more formal scientific training. I usually find that students exceed their performance expectations on this section after only a few practice tests. The existence of this section should not deter any student from considering taking the ACT exam.

4) The ACT Math Section is Challenging: I can not emphasize this point enough. The ACT Math section offers consistently more challenging questions, including Log functions, Sine/CoSine/Tangent trigonometric functions…etc. The SAT does not generally test students to this degree. While you do not need to be an AP Math student to perform well on this test, it is essential that a student taking the ACT know basic trigonometry and pre-Calculus formulas to receive a strong score on this section. In general, I notice that non-AP math students I work with score approximately 100 points better on the SAT math section.


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