Choosing Between SAT and ACT

Choosing Between SAT and ACT

“SAT or ACT” is definitely not about “inky pinky ponky”.

Though the purpose (Undergraduate Admissions) of taking the 2 college admission tests is the same, the percentile scores you get when you take the two may differ. The two tests differ in their score ranges and the performances can only be compared in terms of the percentile scores. Since the colleges look for higher percentile scores, the test in which you score higher percentile may be the one you would prefer to take.

The SAT is an older test than the ACT, having been administered first time (1926), over 3 decades before the ACT was administered first time (1959).

Presently the tests are equally accepted by most of the colleges and hence taken by an almost equal number of students. Both CollegeBoard and ACT Inc., the owners of the tests SAT and the ACT respectively keep competing to increase their respective number of test-takers by improving the tests regularly. The SAT was last revised in 2016 while ACT had some minor changes in 2015. The latest changes made to SAT made both the tests less different from each other. However, some differences do exist and it is important to the test-takers to know them.

Before I list down the differences, you may go through the test-structures tabularized below.

  • 3 hours (without Essay)
  • 3 hours 50 minutes (with Essay)
  • 2 hours 55 minutes (without Essay)
  • 3 hours 40 minutes (with Essay)
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Maths (no calculator)
  • Maths (calculator)
  • Essay(optional)
  • English
  • Maths
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Essay(optional)

The two tests are similar in a lot of ways. The few differences are our focus areas in understanding which of the two suits you.

In the table above, you would have noticed the ACT is a bit shorter duration test than the SAT. The below table summarizes the number of questions and minutes (per section) on the two tests.

Section Number of questions Number of minutes Time per question Section Number of questions Number of minutes Time per question
Reading 52 65 75 seconds English 75 45 36 seconds
Writing 44 35 48 seconds Maths 60  60 60 seconds
Maths(no calc) 20 25 75 seconds Reading 40 35 53 seconds
Maths(calc) 38 55 86 seconds Science 40 35 53 seconds

Clearly, the ACT expects test-takers to solve the questions in lesser time, when compared with the SAT. However, it’s also worthwhile to know that the ACT questions require lesser time to solve as well because of the design of the questions. The ACT questions are more straightforward, often testing you on whether you simply know things or not. However, the SAT tests the knowledge in a slightly different way – it tests you a bit on the application of the knowledge. A simple example below should explain the above point.

SAT Example question

SAT Example question

Looking at the above two questions, it must be easy to identify which one is from an ACT test and which one is from a SAT.

Yes, if you thought the question numbered 5 (above) is from the SAT, you are perfect there. Both the questions above test you on your knowledge of the basic geometry formulae of “area or perimeter of rectangle”. However, notice that the SAT question has variables in the answer choices and the ACT question has numbers. The SAT likes variables and algebra. So, now you know how ACT is comparatively a more straightforward test than the SAT and hence why you are given lesser time per question. Similar things happen in the English (Reading/Writing) sections as well. 

Apart from the time allotted per question, the tests differ a bit in their syllabus too. One of the differences we just saw was, the SAT has more algebra than the ACT. To compensate, the ACT has more geometry/trigonometry than the SAT. Whatever be the minor differences in the syllabus, both tests ensure that they test only content already covered in high school. It’s only for you to choose which of the topics you are better with.
The other very obvious difference between the tests is the Science section, which is there on the ACT and not in the SAT. The science section, contrary to what the name suggests, doesn’t actually test one’s knowledge of science as a subject. The science section of the ACT has questions based on some data presented in the form of a passage/table/graph, often related to some experiments described clearly in the passages. The test-takers would generally be able to solve the questions without any prior knowledge of science terminology, though it may help a bit if one has an interest in science and experiments. The SAT compensates this part by having the “data analysis” questions in the Maths section. These questions have some tables, graphs and other pictorial representation of data which the students are expected to work with. However, these are simpler than the ACT science questions.

Start your course

I conclude by suggesting you again to take a full-length test of each of the two and compare your percentile scores to get a complete idea about which test you would like to choose.