act and sat differences resized 600Every year high school students are faced with taking one of two tests in order to get into college. The SAT and ACT are both formidable challenges, but fortunately students only have to take one or the other in order to get into the college of their choice. Since the vast majority of universities accept either score, it’s up to students to decide which test is the best fit for them.

Behind the two acronyms ACT and SAT, there are two very different tests that analyze different aspects of a student’s learning capabilities. Teachers can use the following points to summarize the differences and help students select the best test for their skills.

1. Core Curriculum vs. Aptitude

The ACT and SAT test different aspects of a student’s knowledge. The ACT calls on knowledge specific to high school curriculum work in particular subject areas. Students are tested on material that every high school student needs to know before graduation. It is known as an achievement test because it is geared to quantify the cumulative skill or knowledge of each student. The challenge of this test is to cover and memorize the material that will likely be on the best.

On the other hand, the SAT is an aptitude test. It requires students to apply a broader knowledge of reasoning and verbal skills to the subject matter questions being asked or written about. Doing well on the SAT is a matter of understanding how to critically read and interpret the questions, and then reason your way to the correct answer.  

 2. Overall Subject Matter

The ACT contains 5 core subject sections:  English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test. The SAT only has 3 subject sections: Critical Reasoning, Mathematics, and a required Writing Test. There is no science on the SAT. If a student has strong science skills the ACT might be the best fit since that is incorporated into the entire score.

3. Math

Although both tests have math sections, there’s a difference in what they test. The ACT incorporates trigonometry into its math testing and the SAT does not. Both tests do cover arithmetic, algebra and geometry.

4. Essays

The ACT has an optional essay. If students choose to write an essay, it is often about subject matter pertaining to high school. The SAT always requires a written essay, usually on a broad topic that calls for literary or historical references to prove your point. Strong writers will usually perform well on the SAT written test, so that may be the best choice for them.

5. Guessing Penalty

The most important difference (some say) is that the ACT does not penalize students for guessing and the SAT does. What this means is that SAT takers get:

  • 1 point for right answers
  • 0 points for not answering
  • -1/4 point for every wrong answer.  

The ACT gathers only the amount of correct answers on each test to calculate the final score. Thus, there is no penalty for guessing. Test taking techniques such as eliminating improbable answers are very effective in scoring high marks on both tests, however.

Deciding which test to take depends on a student’s college requirements and personal preference. Help students select the test that will highlight their best talents and prepare them with general test taking skills and they’ll be more likely to succeed.