A shift in college admission offices has caused dramatic changes on the standardized testing scene.  Traditionally the decision to take the ACT or the SAT was more a matter of what college you were interested in going to rather than which format you liked better. 

Now, every school in the country will accept either the ACT or the SAT and do not have a preference which you take.  This has allowed for most high school students to have the option to take both tests and see which one they prefer.  This change has caused a dramatic increase in the number of students taking the ACT in recent years.

Although both tests are now often mentioned in the same breath, there are some differences between the ACT and the SAT that should be noted before students decide which test they want to prepare for.  Most scores fall in the same range when taking the two tests so the decision of which test to take comes down to test preference for the majority of students.

The prevailing advice is that students should take both the ACT and the SAT in their junior year, decide which they felt more comfortable with and then prepare solely for that exam going into senior year.

differencesACT and SAT Format Differences

The biggest difference between the two tests lies in the formats.  We could spend a lot of time outlining all the very small differences but we will choose to highlight some of the main points in this post.

The ACT is 3 hours and 25 minutes and has four sections plus an optional essay section.  The ACT tests English, reading, math and science reasoning.

The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes and has ten sections.  The SAT tests critical reading, math and writing.

The ACT has fewer sections than the SAT but these sections are longer.  Students who have strong time management skills tend to prefer the ACT.  Students who are good at changing gears often prefer the SAT as it changes subjects multiple times and the sections are significantly shorter.

Differences in Test Taking Strategy

There are also some differences between the ACT and the SAT that students need to know when preparing for these exams as it affects strategy.  On the ACT there is no penalty for guessing so students should answer every question.  On the SAT there is a ¼ pt. penalty for a wrong answer (on all multiple choice- there is no penalty for wrong answers on the grid-ins) but no penalty for omitting a question.  So if a student is unsure about an answer but can eliminate one answer choice, they should guess; if they can’t eliminate one of the choices, they should omit the question.

Content Differences

There are also a few content differences to note.  The ACT covers a wider range of math than the SAT; the ACT includes a higher level of algebra as well as trigonometry.  The ACT science section does not require specific knowledge of science but rather the ability to read and interpret graphs and tables.

The SAT places much more emphasis on vocabulary as well as grammar.  SAT questions often require more inference or reasoning.  SAT questions can seem more intimidating than the curriculum based ACT questions.  ACT questions are more often similar to what students would see in their everyday school work.