Just yesterday I got this email about the whole “SAT vs ACT” thing:

SAT vs ACT email from a subscriber

A recent email I received on the whole SAT vs ACT thing

I’ve been getting this question a lot more than I used to, for some reason, so I wanted to address the issue publicly.

It’s important that somebody finally provide a full, accurate explanation of the differences between the SAT and the ACT, because the “SAT vs ACT” issue is one of the biggest misconceptions in the field of test prep –and there are a lot of misconceptions in test prep, as you know if you read this site frequently.

The ACT has done a very good job of convincing most test-takers (and the educational community at large) that their test is substantially different from the SAT. The email above demonstrates this, and if you search something like “SAT vs ACT” or “SAT ACT difference” you’ll find sites that say things like this:

The ACT is considered a curriculum-based test, meaning it tests a student’s knowledge of subject matter covered in high school. On the other hand, the SAT is traditionally thought of as a test that measures a student’s reasoning or critical thinking skills. [suite101.com]

But the idea that the ACT and the SAT are somehow fundamentally different is, in a word, wrong. As in false. As in they’re essentially the same test, at least as far as their supposed “subject matter” is concerned.

There are differences between the two tests, but they’re kind of like the differences between Coke and Pepsi: each thing has its own fanatical adherents and most people have a slight preference for one or the other, but when you get right down to it they’re practically identical, they’re both slightly harmful to you, and they both go great with pizza.

The ACT doesn’t test scientific knowledge significantly more than the SAT does, and the SAT doesn’t test vocabulary significantly more than the ACT does. The math on the two tests is only slightly different. They do test different grammar and style ideas, but the rules for each test are so simple that it doesn’t take much time to learn them. And the reading comprehension on the two tests is 95% the same (based on a formula in which I think of a number that feels about right to me).

Now, this doesn’t mean that everybody does the same on the SAT and the ACT (although most people do). Some people do much better on one than on the other. But the difference in performance is primarily the result of two factors:

  1. the psychological impact of the student’s own expectations about the test–the “hypochondriac effect,” if you will, and
  2. differences in the actual format and timing of the sections on the test, rather than the subject matter of the questions.

So the short answer to the question “how are the SAT and the ACT different?” is this:

  • The questions aren’t really that different at all–only the formats of the two tests are significantly different.
  • The ACT doesn’t focus on science.
  • The SAT doesn’t focus on vocabulary.
  • The Math sections of the two tests aren’t as different as everybody seems to think.
  • If you’re applying to competitive schools, the SAT and the ACT give equal weight to what they call “writing” (though neither test actually evaluates writing ability).
  • If you prepare for one of the tests, it should take very little time (less than an hour) to convert your approach to the other test.

I know that some of these statements are controversial. But, as always, I have the facts to back me up. In the next few pages, I’m going to explain why the “SAT vs ACT” question is a red herring that distracts students from the real issue, which is the proper way to prepare for a multiple-choice standardized test.

Next in my SAT vs ACT series: The ACT Science Myth