A Side by Side Look at the SAT and ACT

January 5, 2021 

Although many colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies, at least temporarily, due to Covid-19, submitting SAT or ACT test scores may still be a great way for students to increase their chances of admission. Therefore, students and their families need to consider two questions:
Should I submit test scores as part of my college applications?
If so, which test, SAT or ACT, will make me a stronger candidate?

While these two the tests are similar, they do have key differences. A recent webinar presented by Drew Heilpern of Summit Educational Group entitled College Admissions Testing: A deep dive into the content covered on the SAT and ACT summed up the differences between these two tests as linked to two components of test design: “aptitude versus curriculum” (innate ability versus mastery of content learned in school) and “speed versus power” (the pace of a test versus the trickiness of the questions). The SAT is a slower paced test than the ACT and features trickier questions as a result. The ACT may be more straightforward, but it’s difficult due to its pacing. Choosing the best test for you, therefore, depends on matching a test to your unique strengths and weaknesses.

A Side-by-Side Look at SAT and ACT Sections

SAT Writing & Language Section | ACT English Section
The SAT’s Writing and Language section and the ACT’s English section both ask students to either correct grammar and punctuation errors or improve the organization, style, and development of ideas in a passage. The biggest difference between these two tests is the complexity of the passages and the questions. The passages on the SAT are a bit more academically oriented and a bit harder. Those on the ACT English section are closer to the writing level of a typical high school student. Although the ACT is generally more challenging for students because of its speed, its English section is the least fast-paced. So, ultimately, the ACT English section offers students a better opportunity to not only earn a higher score on this particular section, but also to increase their overall composite score.

Beyond the stark contrast between the relatively short 35-minute ACT Reading section and the SAT’s 65-minute Reading section, there are several other differences that could make one test a better means to demonstrate a student’s reading ability. The SAT requires students to read more deeply and analytically than does the ACT. Accordingly, SAT questions require students to more frequently refer back to the text to analyze individual words for “vocabulary-in-context” questions and specific lines for “command of evidence” questions. The ACT, however, requires faster and more efficient reading. In short, the ACT is demanding because it requires students to demonstrate strong, basic reading comprehension in a limited amount of time, while the SAT is demanding because it requires students to read and analyze more complex passages.

The math concepts tested on both the SAT and ACT are not that different (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, basic trigonometry). However, the SAT is much more weighted towards Algebra content while Geometry figures more prominently on the ACT. As with the Reading sections, the Math portion of the SAT requires a deeper understanding of a narrower set of skills and concepts but gives students more time per question. The ACT requires a wider but shallower understanding of the math content but gives the students less time per question. Also note that students who take the SAT also are not permitted to use a calculator on one of the two Math sections.

Science is perhaps where the SAT and ACT diverge the most, especially in terms of structure. While the ACT has its own designated Science section, the SAT has no separate section, integrating 21 science-oriented questions throughout the exam. However, regardless of which test a student chooses to take, a familiarity with the scientific method and interpreting “different types of figures and graphs” will be essential.

The (Optional) Essay
At this point very few colleges require an essay score, and some colleges won’t consider it even if it’s submitted. So, before students decide whether to prepare for and write the essay portion of either exam, it’s a good idea to check the essay policies of several colleges they are interested in. Only those students who are capable of demonstrating strong writing skills should consider taking the SAT’s Essay test or the ACT’s Writing test. The SAT asks students to read a piece of persuasive writing and analyze the author’s use of rhetorical strategies: evidence, reasoning, and style. The ACT, on the other hand, asks students to take a position on an issue (e.g. school uniforms, year-round school, summer school, etc.) by developing their own examples and analyzing three perspectives given in the prompt.

Next Steps
While many colleges have either adopted test-optional policies permanently, or have temporarily adopted them in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remember that test-optional does not mean “test blind.” In other words, it may still be advantageous to prepare for and take an SAT or ACT since it remains an important way to impress admissions officers.
The majority of students we work with start out with relatively equivalent scores on the SAT and ACT. However, due to the differences between the tests, one test or the other may give a specific student a better chance of significantly improving his or her score. Therefore, it’s important to take both a practice SAT and ACT in order to see which of the two which will give the student a better chance of success. At A+ we offer students the opportunity to take free practice SAT and ACT exams. We also provide students and their families with detailed score reports and analysis to help them decide which test is a better fit. Register today for a free proctored practice exam!

Written by Elizabeth Sweger

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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