Differences Between The SAT And The ACT

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few sections of this article explaining that the SAT and the ACT are actually a lot more similar than most people think:

  • The ACT Science section doesn’t reward you for knowing much science.

  • The SAT Reading section doesn’t reward you for knowing much vocabulary.

  • Both tests have math sections that reward students for thinking about basic concepts in new ways.

  • Both tests have multiple choice questions that test you on grammar and writing style.

  • Both tests have poorly constructed essay components (the one on the ACT is supposedly optional, but if you’re applying to a selective school they’ll require you to submit the essay score).

Of course, all of this invites a question:

If the SAT and ACT have all of these similarities, what makes them different?

There are definite differences between the SAT and the ACT, but they’re not what everybody thinks.

Here are the most important differences:

  1. On the ACT, all the questions of the same type are placed together in one section; on the SAT, questions are broken up into multiple sections.This means that ACT-takers have to do more questions of one type at a time, which means they have to pay attention for a longer period of time without a change.

  2. The SAT has a “guessing penalty,” while the ACT doesn’t.The SAT subtracts points for wrong answers, but the ACT doesn’t. This means, in short, that there are situations in which an SAT-taker shouldn’t answer a question, but an ACT-taker should put an answer down for every single question.

. . . and that’s pretty much it, as far as the major differences between the ACT and SAT are concerned.

There are minor differences, too:

  • The essay section comes first on the SAT, but last on the ACT

  • The ACT math section can use trigonometry, but the SAT math section can’t.

  • The ACT English section tests the formation of possessives, but the SAT English section doesn’t.

  • The SAT has sentence completion questions, but the ACT doesn’t.

  • The SAT math section has student-produced response questions, but the ACT doesn’t.

  • The citation questions on the SAT reading section go through the passage in order, but on the ACT they can jump around.

. . . and so on. As I said, these are all minor differences, and most trained test-takers don’t even really notice them after a little practice.

So what accounts for the differences between SAT and ACT scores?

First of all, most students actually get pretty similar scores on the SAT and the ACT. This is because, despite the ACT’s hype, the SAT and the ACT are extremely similar tests.

But there are some students who do much better on one test than the other. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article series, this is usually the result of the student’s subjective expectations, and not a reflection of any significant difference in the test.

But don’t take my word for it–try a practice SAT test and a practice ACT test and see if you end up with scores that are significantly different. If you’re like most test-takers, you won’t.

(You can use this ACT-SAT score concordance to check your results)

So here’s the bottom line: If you think one of the tests has a better format (as far as the number of sections, whether the essay comes first or last, et cetera), then go with that one.

But don’t buy into the ACT’s hype that it’s a fundamentally different test from the SAT. It just plain isn’t, as you can prove to yourself by trying samples of each and using the concordance above.

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