Differences between the SAT and ACT

Dear College Made Simple reader,

As you know, college applicants are required to submit their score from either the SAT or the ACT standardized test (at most U.S. schools).

And because each of these tests can have an enormous impact on your admissions eligibility… it’s important that families know the differences between the two tests – so you can determine which makes the best sense for you.

– Scott

What are the differences between the SAT and the ACT?

  • Aim. The ACT is test of what you’ve learned in school. Its questions try to give the admissions office an idea of an applicant’s readiness for college. The SAT measures literacy and writing skills as well as analytical and problem solving skills that may be necessary for college coursework. Therefore the questions on the ACT tend to be straightforward, while the SAT questions can be more puzzling.
  • Sections. The ACT has four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT has three sections: Writing, Critical Reading, and Math. The SAT has a greater emphasis on vocabulary, while the ACT focuses more on grammar.
  • Time. The ACT is 2 hours 55 minutes, with 215 questions, all multiple choice and an optional 30-minute optional essay. The SAT is 3 hours 45 minutes, with 170 questions. Unlike the ACT, the SAT math section requires some answers to be written in a grid as opposed to multiple choice, and there is a 25-minute mandatory essay.
  • Essay. While the ACT essay is optional, many schools will require a score on the essay. The ACT usually prompts the writer to write about a social issue applicable to high school student. The SAT usually asks a question based on a broad philosophical question to further test critical reasoning skills. You can follow this link to learn more about  How to Master the SAT Essay.
  • Scoring. The ACT is entirely multiple choice, unless you’ve chosen to complete the essay.  The SAT has a mandatory written section, and the aforementioned math section that requires answers be written in. It is important to remember that the ACT has no penalty for wrong answers. You should answer every question – an entire point will be deducted if you leave an answer blank. On the SAT, you will be penalized ¼ point for every wrong answer. We recommend you only guess on questions in which you can eliminate one of the four options.
  • Use. The SAT is used primarily by schools on the East and West Coast. The ACT is used throughout the Midwest, the Rockies, and the South. More recently, many schools that only took the SAT previously are now accepting the ACT as well. (Also, those that predominantly used the ACT are now accepting the SAT, so a student can submit whichever scores represent their best ability.)

Another thing to keep in mind – It’s not likely you’ll score differently on these two tests (Similar percentiles are the norm for most students).

To your college funding & admissions success,

Scott Weingold

Co-Founder, College Planning Network LLC
Publisher, CollegeMadeSimple.com – The free educational resource of College Planning Network


Related Articles:

Which Test is Harder: The SAT or ACT?


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Editor's Note: Scott Weingold has been ranked the #1 “College Financial Aid Expert Worth Knowing About” in the entire country by CollegeStats.org.  He has co-authored the book, “The Real Secret To Paying For College. The Insider’s Guide To Sending Your Child To College – Without Spending Your Life’s Savings.” Scott also publishes a popular free online newsletter, “College Funding Made Simple" which reveals insider’s tips, methods, and strategies for beating the high cost of college.

Scott is the co-founder and a principal of the widely renown College Planning Network, LLC – the nation’s largest and most reputable college admissions and financial aid planning firm. CPN is a proud member of the Better Business Bureau, the National Association of College Funding Advisors, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Scott, along with his college funding advisory team, helps thousands of families throughout the country with their college planning needs and offers a series of free educational webinars and workshops on “How To Pay For College Without Going Broke In The Process!” He's been featured or mentioned in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo News, TheStreet.com, Voice America with Ron Adams, Crains Cleveland Business, and on Cleveland Connection with James McIntyre.  Scott has published numerous articles and is a professional speaker who has addressed thousands of audiences online and offline throughout the United States.  His actionable insights and candid, open approach have earned him & his team numerous media interviews, citations, and speaking opportunities, and his free online video workshop is one of the Internet’s most widely viewed pieces in the college funding space.