Choosing Between the SAT and ACT

In the eyes of colleges and universities across the United States, the SAT and ACT are identical tests that play an important part in the application process. Both college readiness exams are given 7 times per year and you can take either exam several times if you are not happy with your first (or 2nd or 3rd) score. If you're a Spring term 10th grader or a rising 11th grader, choosing to take the SAT or ACT is an important first step in starting the college application process.

But how can you be sure which test is best suited to your learning style?

Both the SAT and ACT have Reading Comprehension, English/Language and Math sections, as well as an optional Essay section that is required by some of the more competitive universities. And both exams last about 3 hours, not including the essay. But the SAT and ACT have some major differences as well and we think it's important to figure out which exam you are naturally better at and start your test preparation journey armed with that knowledge.

SAT

TEST BREAKDOWN

Reading: 52 questions/ 65 mins

Writing & Language: 44 questions/ 35 mins

Math no calc. : 20 questions/ 25 mins

Math: 38 questions/ 55 mins

Optional Essay:  1 question/ 50 mins

TIMING

3 hours + 50 min essay

10 min break

READING SECTION

  • 5 passages
  • Evidence Support questions ask you to identify the part of the text that made you choose your answer.
  • Tricky answer choices can lead you astray.
  • Questions are in chronological order so it’s easier to skim the passage and look for the answer.

LANGUAGE SECTION

  • Sentence analysis questions and passage analysis questions that ask you to find grammar and punctuation, sentence organization, and vocabulary mistakes.
  • Questions and answers are trickier and often need to be read twice.

MATH SECTION

  • Contains a section that allows you to use a calculator and a section that doesn’t allow calculator use.
  • Contains non-multiple-choice problems (“grid-ins”).
  • Multiple choice questions have 4 answer choices.
  • Gives students a geometry/trig formulas sheet.
  • Contains very little geometry & trig.

SCIENCE SECTION

No Science Section, but the Reading Comprehension section includes graphs and data analysis.

 

 

 

OPTIONAL ESSAY

  • Question is always the same, asking to analyze a provided text.
  • No opinion.

ACT

TEST BREAKDOWN

English: 75 questions/ 45 mins

Math : 60 questions/ 60 mins

Reading: 40 questions/ 35 mins

Science: 40 questions/ 35 mins

Optional Writing (Essay):  1 question/ 40 mins

TIMING

2 hours 55 mins + 40 min essay

10 min break

READING SECTION

  • 4 passages
  • No Evidence Support questions or tricky answers.
  • Questions are not in chronological order, so you have to read the text more closely.
  • More time pressure as usual for the ACT.

 

ENGLISH SECTION

  • Only passage analysis questions (5 passages) with 15 questions in each that ask you to find grammar and punctuation, sentence organization, and vocabulary mistakes. Parts of the passages that refer to the question are clearly marked 1-15 in the margins.

MATH SECTION

  • Calculator allowed for the entire test.
  • All questions are multiple choice.
  • Questions have 5 answer choices.
  • Approximately 35%-45% of the math questions cover geometry, trigonometry and other advanced math topics.

 

SCIENCE SECTION

  • 7 reading passages and corresponding questions that ask you to read and understand data, interpret the design and results of experiments and compare opposing viewpoints.
  • Surprisingly, no specific science knowledge is needed. Instead, students to interpret graphs, charts and data using the analytical method that is used in science.

OPTIONAL ESSAY

  • Question is about the provided text.
  • Asks to provide your own argument and support it using the text.

So what's the bottom line?

SAT

You won't know 100% which test you are better at until you take a diagnostic test, but here is some food for thought.

Take the SAT if you have trouble with timed tests and are worried about time pressure. While both the SAT and ACT are timed tests, the SAT simply gives you more time for each question. Take the SAT if you don't want to deal with geometry or trigonometry but you do want to show off your math skills, because 50% of the SAT score if based on math and 20 of the questions do not allow the use of calculators. If you choose the SAT, it's also important to remember that the current version of the test is brand new (est. 2016) so the test is still being tweaked every time it is given and not as much practice material is available as the ACT.

ACT

Take the ACT if you typically don't have difficulty with timed tests, as this test gives you less time to finish each question than the SAT. But it's important to remember that for many SAT-style questions (especially in Reading Comprehension), you may need more time to do each question because the answer choices are meant to be tricky and often need to be read several times. Take the ACT if the fact that math only makes up 25% of your score appeals to you, but do remember that you will need to show more knowledge of geometry and trig for the ACT Math Section. If you like the idea of an analytical section, where you are asked to read graphs and interpret data, then the ACT with its unique Science Section will work for you.

We strongly recommend a diagnostic test before you make your final decision.

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ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse IVY Tutors Network.