5 Key Differences Between the SAT and ACT

Wondering which standardized test might be the best fit for you? Check out the five biggest differences between the SAT and ACT.

At some point during high school, students are all met with the same question: “Which standardized test should I take?”

The ACT and SAT are similar in many ways, and students are often unsure of which test is the better option. After all, both tests are accepted at all major colleges and universities, and they seem to cover the same kind of material. Plus, they’ve both been around for decades, so everybody knows and trusts them.

A deeper analysis reveals that the ACT and SAT are actually two very different exams, from format to subject matter. And the truth is that there isn’t a “better test”; it is up to the student to determine which test best fits their individual strengths and needs.

Wondering which test might be the best fit for you? Check out five key differences below.

Related: Should I Take the SAT or ACT? Take This Quiz First!

1. Math section

One of the key differences between the Math sections on each test is that the SAT has calculator-permitted and calculator-forbidden sections, while the ACT allows calculators on all math questions. Granted, the calculator-forbidden questions on the SAT are simple enough that they can be solved without a calculator. However, if you’re the kind of person who feels more comfortable knowing you have a calculator to fall back on, the ACT may be a better choice for you.

Another difference in the Math sections lies in the material that is covered. The SAT covers data analysis and pre-calculus, while the ACT does not. Another important note: you won’t be given any formulas on the ACT.

2. The good ol’ Essay

Both the ACT and SAT offer an optional Essay portion. If you choose to take the test with the Essay, it’s important to note the differences in the prompts. The SAT prompt will test how well you understand a source text, while the ACT prompt will test how well you can choose an argument and defend it. In short, the SAT prompt will look more like an AP Language or AP Literature essay prompt (remember those rhetorical devices?), while the ACT prompt asks you to write a persuasive essay.

Related: The Differences Between the ACT and SAT Writing Sections

3. That sneaky Science section

Another big difference between the SAT and the ACT lies in the ACT’s Science section, which the SAT doesn’t offer. Don’t let the word “science” scare you. The Science section is mainly comprised of graph interpretation and data analysis; very few questions will actually test your science knowledge.

For students who are weaker in math, the ACT offers a huge advantage. While the Math score comprises 50% of the overall SAT score, due to the presence of the Science section on the ACT, Math is only worth 25%. However, the inverse is also true: if a student excels in math, they will probably be better off taking the SAT.

4. Knowledge or critical thinking?

The underlying philosophies of the ACT and the SAT are also very different. While the ACT will ask you more straightforward questions that will test your knowledge, the SAT will ask more creative questions that will test your critical-thinking skills. On the Math section, for example, this difference might manifest itself in equations versus word problems: the ACT will have more questions that appear as numbers or graphs, whereas the SAT will use more words and scenarios. On the English section, the ACT might ask more questions about grammar, while the SAT might focus a bit more on writing style and expression of ideas.

5. Vicious vocabulary

Although the SAT is more focused on concepts than on spit-back knowledge, there is still something to be noted about the SAT’s focus on vocabulary. Prior to March 2016, the SAT included questions called “Sentence Completions,” where students would have to complete the sentence with the best word choice from the list. Although the SAT no longer includes these types of questions, the passages in the English section are known to have high-level vocabulary. If you choose to take the SAT, you should dedicate some time to vocabulary study.

Related: Play the CollegeXpress SAT Word Game

No matter which test you take, it’s important to remember to choose one. Many students take both the ACT and SAT multiple times in hopes of getting the best score possible. However, this method divides your efforts and is ineffective in the long run. Instead, choose the test that is better for you and focus all of your energy on improving your score on that test only. That isn’t to say that you can’t take a practice test of each and see where you score higher. In fact, that is often a great way to see which test is best for you. However, once you choose a test, stick to it. Ultimately, you’ll be happy that you did.

Best of luck on your exams!


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About Tamar Lilienthal

Tamar Lilienthal is a high school senior from Coral Springs, Florida. Her passion has been writing for as long as she can remember, and she hopes to pursue it as a career. She has written for publications like National Geographic Kids, and she is so excited that she has the opportunity to write for CollegeXpress! Tamar is also a dancer, and she is trained in tap, ballet, jazz, and contemporary. She loves sunny weather and her cockapoo, Bubbles. She plans on taking a gap year and then attending the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2019. 


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