The SAT versus the ACT, and why

‘Which test should I take?’ Parents and students are never quite clear on the difference between the two standardized tests and which fits an individual student’s strengths.

First, let me dismiss the misconception that the American College Test (ACT) is a regional version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and is taken primarily by students applying to Midwestern schools. The ACT is considered a national exam and is rapidly growing in popularity. Colleges and universities have no preference which standardized college entrance exam a student chooses to submit.

There are distinct differences between the two exams, and certain students are more likely to perform better on one versus the other.

The SAT is defined as a reasoning test, while the ACT is more content-based. The topics covered in the SAT include reading, vocabulary, grammar and usage, writing and math. The ACT covers grammar and usage, math, reading, science reasoning and writing (optional). The test styles vary as well.

The SAT questions are tricky and phrased in such a way that the student has to translate their meaning. The ACT questions are more straightforward, sometimes longer, but less difficult to decipher. Math levels tested are different for each exam.

The SAT covers arithmetic, data analysis, algebra I and II, functions, geometry and formulas that are outlined in the test booklet. The ACT covers arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry and does not provide any formulas.

The difference in the scoring of each exam can be confusing. The math, critical reading and writing section scores on the SAT each range from 200 to 800, for a total score range of 600 to 2400. The ACT test sections in English, math, reading and science are scored in a range of 1 to 36. A composite ACT score is the average of the four sections. A writing section is optional on the ACT. College admissions officers care about how a student does on each section of the SAT. On the ACT they are more concerned with the composite score.

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