Five Clear Differences Between the SAT and ACT

First things first: you aren’t likely to score differently on these two tests. In study after study, students who took the ACT and the SAT scored in extremely similar percentiles on both. And, since both tests are graded on a curve – your final score is basically just your percentile converted to another number – you aren’t going to cheat the system by choosing one over the other.

What’s more, at this point, virtually every college accepts both tests. The SAT is more prevalent at elite universities – but submitting the ACT won’t hurt your chances of admission. (In fact, a number of states now require high school students to take the ACT.)

That said, here are some key differences between the ACT and the SAT to consider…

The SAT vs the ACT

  • Aim. The ACT tries to test knowledge of high school subjects – hence, the questions tend to be considered more straightforward. The SAT, by contrast, attempts to identify reasoning skills. Rather than just test general knowledge, the SAT tests problem-solving and comprehension. Therefore SAT questions are considered slightly more obtuse than ACT questions.
  • 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. There is also a 30-minute optional essay. The SAT is 3 hours 45 minutes, with 170 questions. Some questions in the SAT math section require answers to be written in a grid as opposed to multiple choice, and there is a 25-minute mandatory essay.
  • Essay. The ACT tends to give rather specific prompts for its optional essay (“What should X do about Y?”), while the SAT gives prompts that are more vague and more open (“Why do you think X acted this way?”). Follow this link to learn more about How to Master the SAT Essay.
  • Scoring. The ACT is entirely multiple choice – save the optional essay – while the SAT has a mandatory written section, and the aforementioned math section that requires answers be written in. Also, the ACT has no penalty for wrong answers (reminder: answer every question – an entire point will be deducted if you leave an answer blank), while the SAT penalizes ¼ point for every wrong answer (reminder: only guess in questions where you can eliminate one of the four options).

As you can see, each test will appeal to slightly different students. It’s worth looking into whether your desired colleges have a preference for the SAT, the ACT, or both. But remember, you can’t go wrong with either.

Read on for more ACT guides and research here, and follow this link for additional SAT help.

Until next time,

Scott Weingold

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1 Comment

LindaMarch 13th, 2011 at 6:47 am

can you provide the map scores between SAT VS ACT such as 600 VS 1

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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  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,, 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.