Test Info: SAT vs. ACT

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While both the SAT and ACT exams are accepted at nearly every college, it is important that students determine the best test to take. To assist in making an informed and effective decision, Competitive Edge offers diagnostic tests for both the ACT and SAT at our testing center and online.

The comparison chart below highlights the key differences between the two tests:




Key Differences

Reading :

The passages on the SAT are often more challenging in terms of vocabulary and complexity than those on the ACT and often include at least one passage from the late 19th or early 20th century or earlier, a type of historical passage extremely unlikely to appear on the ACT. In addition, the SAT’s reading questions tend to be more interpretive and reasoning-based; comparatively, the ACT favors questions oriented towards specific details in the passage and challenges students to find them efficiently under time constraints.
The SAT allows students 65 minutes to read 5 passages and complete 52 questions. The ACT demands a quicker pace, allowing 35 minutes to read 4 passages and complete 40 questions – less than one minute per question.
Though vocabulary is not specifically tested on the SAT, the difficulty of its passages still favors students with stronger vocabularies and close reading skills and those who prefer more time to process complex questions. The ACT Reading section favors students who are faster readers more comfortable with a brisk pace. The primary difference between the SAT and ACT Reading sections, accordingly, might be characterized as an emphasis on depth versus an emphasis on speed: while ACT passages and questions do not require the same level of analysis that the SAT passages and questions do, completing the ACT Reading section does require a quicker speed.

Writing & Language / English :

The SAT Writing & Language section is identical to the ACT English section in format and virtually identical in content. The SAT may use graphs and tables in conjunction with a passage, a relatively minor difference, and the SAT’s passages are slightly denser and more complex, requiring slightly more reading comprehension. In addition, while both sections ask questions about editing decisions as well as grammar rules, the SAT includes more of the former than the latter, an emphasis reversed on the ACT.
The SAT allows students 35 minutes to answer 44 questions in 4 passages; the ACT allows 45 minutes to answer 75 questions in 5 passages. Again, the ACT demands a quicker pace.

Math :

Some important differences between the SAT and the ACT Math sections are readily apparent. The SAT includes a separately-timed non-calculator Math section while the ACT does not, and each SAT math section incorporates student-produced responses (or “fill ins”) in addition to multiple choice questions while the ACT is exclusively multiple choice.

Compared to the ACT, the SAT places greater emphasis on the fundamentals of math (percents,rates, unit conversions, fractions, proportions, etc), algebra skills, interpretation of graphs and charts, “real-world” application problems, surveys and statistics, and connections between words and algebra. It deemphasizes geometry, most topics in trigonometry/precalculus, and various number and operations topics (e.g. factors/multiples, remainders, sequences, radicals). Thus, the SAT pulls from a much narrower pool of math topics than does the ACT, mirroring the depth versus breadth dichotomy of the two reading sections: several questions on the SAT math section will test the same concept whereas the ACT’s math questions are much more diverse.
Again, the ACT requires more speed than the SAT: on the ACT, students have 60 minutes for 60 questions (for an average of one minute per question); on the SAT, students have 55 minutes for 38 questions on the calculator section (almost 90 seconds per question) and 25 minutes for 20 questions (75 seconds per question) on the non-calculator section.

Overall, the emphasis on verbal/qualitative understanding on the SAT the math section favors students with a strong conceptual foundation, and the non-calculator section favors students with strong algebra and arithmetic skills. Students who excel at reading and interpreting information given in graphs and charts and at applying algebraic concepts to word problems will find the SAT a good fit. Students who are daunted by the thought of not using a calculator, who excel at more advanced content areas with less complicated problem solving, and who are comfortable working at a greater speed may prefer the ACT.

Essay: SAT vs ACT

On the ACT, students are given a paragraph about an issue and then three quotes expressing different perspectives on the issue. The essay prompt asks students to evaluate and analyze the given perspectives, state their perspective, and explain the relationship between their perspective and those presented. On the SAT, the essay prompt will ask students to read a document and analyze its author’s rhetoric and argument.
Students receive 40 minutes for the ACT essay and 50 minutes for the SAT essay.
On both tests, the essay is the last section, its completion is optional, and it is scored separately from the rest of the test, on a 1-12 scale for the ACT and a 6–24 scale for the SAT.


Both of these essay tasks feature a reading and a writing component, and in both cases, the prompt will be known ahead of time though the passages themselves will vary from test to test. The SAT essay task emphasizes close reading and rhetorical analysis while the ACT essay emphasizes evaluating and synthesizing various opinions.

Systematic advantages to preparing for the ACT over the SAT :

Students should select the test that is most comfortable for them. However, there are significant advantages in choosing to prepare for the ACT over the SAT for most students which stem, ultimately, from the SAT’s complete redesign in March of 2016 (an evolution which brought it closer in both form and content to the ACT). These advantages include the following:

  • We have inferior data about the SAT exam itself, its scope, and its scale, given the recency of its revamp; conversion charts, which content is covered, and student performance from one exam to the next continue to show quite significant variability, making it harder to predict with confidence how students will perform on an official test even armed with a series of authentic mock test results and their overall academic profile. Similarly, we do not yet know if colleges and universities will evaluate SAT scores any differently now that the test has changed. We may see fluctuations in average scores in the near future for the SAT, and we can’t predict how admissions officers will compare those scores to ACT scores from other students. An ACT/SAT concordance table, which SAT has published in the past, may be many months away. The non-calculator math component can be particularly daunting on the SAT, and it can easily create opportunities for the sorts of simple calculation errors that can prove detrimental to students.
  • The non-calculator math component of the SAT can be particularly daunting and creates more opportunities for simple calculation errors, avoidable on the ACT, that can prove especially detrimental and hard to excise.
  • We cannot fully predict differences in how colleges and universities may evaluate SAT scores now that the test has changed. We may see fluctuations in average scores in the near future for the SAT, and we can’t predict how admissions officers will compare those scores to ACT scores from other students. The only published ACT/SAT concordance table we have was created by SAT without the cooperation of ACT and doesn’t reflect the results of real students: rather, it maps the new SAT on to the old SAT and then uses data from old SAT scores and ACT scores, a process which certainly introduces error and uncertainty.
  • While perhaps considered less prestigious than the SAT in the past, the ACT is now equally well-respected and universally accepted at all postsecondary institutions. As such, students incur no disadvantage by taking the ACT.
  • Perhaps most importantly, far more authentic material exists for ACT preparation. While we now have about two dozen official SAT exams (along with some pSATs), the most important element of prepping for a standardized test is the ability to give authentic, predictive and diagnostic assessments at very regular intervals and test-based homework on a weekly basis. Only some of the available SATs were actually given to students, and only a subset of those that were administered include a published scaling chart that reflects real scores. On the other hand, we have more than 70 real ACT exams — tests students actually took, that come with real scaling charts– that provide students exposure to exactly the right kinds of problems and allow us to make sure no stone is left unturned. This deficit has huge implications for a student’s test prep process. Students preparing for the SAT may well find themselves exhausting official practice materials well before they take the exam, and third-party publishers have poor track records of creating similarly predictive material. On the other hand, students preparing for the ACT have access to an incredibly large body of official practice tests, which enables them to become intimately familiar with the ACT without having to worry about running out of materials.

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