Digging Deeper: Key (Less Obvious) Differences Between the SAT and ACT​

By Celina Petterson

Many of my prospective clients ask me, “Should my son/daughter take the SAT or the ACT?” It’s the $100,000 question of pre-college test prep. Let me tell you why. You may already know that surface information on the SAT and ACT—including scoring scales, section names, number of questions, time allowed, and essay objective—is easy to Google. That said, you might feel you don’t have the full picture. And you’d be right: what’s easily found on Google and the College Board and ACT, Inc. sites is NOT enough. You may also already be thinking about having your high schooler take a full-length practice version of each test and comparing the scores of each. Brownie points to you for doing this! Next, I’m going to show you how to take your assessment to a new level. This blog post is meant to fill in many of the holes that Google searches and practice test scores on their own leave in your research. I’ve dug deeper to unearth less visible differences between the tests—those that have a profound effect on the experience your high schooler will have with each—and distilled them into plain language to help you and your high schooler make the most informed decision about which test to take, just as I’ve done for my own 1-on-1 students. Caveat: there are more subtle differences than what I’ve outlined below, such as test-specific question types like the reading Command of Evidence and math grid-in questions of the SAT, but very rarely do such small details hold the power that the points below do. My aim is to teach you the most impactful traits to consider when selecting which test to take.

  1. One of the most silent but most easily felt differences: time per question versus thought per question. Have your high schooler think about which of the following he/she would be more comfortable with and/or feels would be easier to strengthen.

  2. On the SAT, there is a greater average time per question, but the questions generally require more thought. Without such thought, it is very easy to be ensnared by tempting trap answers.

  3. On the ACT, questions are generally more straightforward (though not exempt from trap answers), but the average time per question is lower. In order to attempt each question, staying on the move is critical.

  4. Math comprises two sections, or 50%, of the multiple choice component of the SAT. By contrast, math comprises only one section, or 25%, of the same on the ACT.

  5. Math might only comprise 25% of the ACT’s multiple choice section, but it makes up for it by covering more content, including logarithms, matrices, and inverse trig equations. Double whammy: unlike the SAT, the ACT does not provide a list of math formulas.

  6. The SAT has not one but two math sections, and calculators are prohibited in one of them. Translation: your high schooler should be ready for mathematical gymnastics, i.e. frequent flexible problem solving!

  7. Scientific abilities (e.g. interpreting data in figures and tables, drawing conclusions, defending and refuting arguments) are explicitly tested on the ACT (in the science section), whereas these types of questions are sprinkled among all sections of the SAT.

  8. The July ACT is not offered in New York. If your high schooler opts for the July ACT, register him/her quickly to get a testing center close to you in a neighboring state.

  9. Starting in September 2020, ACT will allow retakes of select sections! If your high schooler tends to run out of steam deep into a test, this change would be asset to determining his/her testing strategy. Note that College Board has not announced any similar plans for the SAT. The benefits that a solid rationale for one test versus the other would provide your high schooler are invaluable. Imagine your high schooler having…

  • A positive, robust can-do attitude toward preparing for the test.

  • Game-changing test scores—whether for unlocking scholarship dollars or the gate to a higher college tier—becoming more reachable.

  • One part of the college admissions puzzle in place—and the reduction in stress that comes with it! But perhaps what is most important: he/she will construct a foundation of confidence that will continue to grow during test preparation and ultimately continue to serve him/her in college and beyond. About the author: Celina Pettersen is a fully independent SAT/ACT tutor. Using her own homegrown SAT/ACT strategies, Celina supports students’ preparation for the exams and helps them identify which test best fits their strengths and preferences.

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