Image from Pexels.

Image from Pexels.

With seniors finishing up college apps, high school juniors may be wondering as they head into the standardized testing gauntlet: What the heck are the differences between the SAT and ACT, and what are the reasons for taking each? For those who are unaware, the SAT and ACT are an essential part of the college application. Each college has different requirements so make sure to read carefully before deciding which test to take, but most accept both (or one of the other), so read on to find out which one might be better for you!

Not All Tests Are Created Equal

One standardized test is not inherently better than the other, so it’s important to play to your strengths when selecting which test to take or perhaps focus on more.  For some people, both tests scores will be equal to one another.  However, for others, their ACT scores might be miles better than their SAT scores, or vice versa (you can typically find comparable “conversion charts” somewhere online to get a rough estimate of how scores match up…these should be taken with a grain of salt, however).  For me personally, my ACT score blew my SAT score out of the park.  However, you should still put your best foot forward when taking each test in order to maximize success.

ACT/SAT Differences

Basic Structure

Structurally, the ACT is different from the SAT.  As opposed to multiple sections dealing with one subject (you’re jumping around between areas of reading, writing, and math) on the SAT, you have one section for each subject (a total of four, plus the essay) on the ACT.

Content and Scoring

The ACT focuses on English, reading, math, and science.  What makes the ACT stand out is its optional writing portion.  Although many school say it is required, you are still offered the choice on test day whether or not to take it.  The SAT, however, requires that you take the writing portion and have it factored into your score.  Whereas the SAT is scored in the thousands, the ACT is scored from 1 to 36, with 36 being a perfect score.

The SAT is an exam with far more sections dealing with everything the ACT has besides science; the SAT, in lieu of a science section, offers subject-specific tests.  Essentially, as opposed to taking all the sections, you would just sit in and take a specific section.

The Science Section

One of the main differences between the SAT and the ACT is that the ACT contains a science section. Now, it’s not difficult science like mixing elements and doing calculations; it’s actually an extension of reading comprehension.

Other Differences

As someone who has taken both tests multiple times, I have noticed some key differences that go beyond the structure.  The ACT tends to be more straightforward in how it presents its questions, as it is based on prior knowledge and is much more directed towards what you learn in school. For example, math on the ACT is generally considered tad more difficult due to the material covered.

On the other hand, the SAT puts a greater stress on understanding fundamental building blocks of education, like vocabulary, basic math concepts, and grammar.  So all of those flashcards you’re making will finally be put to some good use. Whereas the SAT goes over basic math, some geometry, and algebra; the ACT introduces trigonometry concepts.  This will make the math section a bit harder for people who haven’t taken geometry yet.   The ACT is inherently a shorter test than the SAT.  The fact that there are only four sections make the test take roughly 3ish hours.  The SAT, however, contains ten sections covering four subjects, and takes roughly 5ish hours to complete.

The Bottom Line

Each test offers a variety of pros and cons, but find the test that allows you to show your strength; just make sure you understand what your schools are looking for. Standardized tests can often be a stressful time, but colleges do look at more than your scores, and if you don’t do as well as you would like, you can retake the tests to your heart’s content.



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the author

Carlton Smith is a junior at the College of William and Mary currently majoring in Government. He loves to sing and dance and is involved with one of his school's A Cappella groups known as DoubleTake. He has served as the Class of 2015's Vice President for the past three years.

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