What’s the Difference Between ACT and SAT?

Knowing the difference can set you up for college admissions success.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

March 20, 2022

Though both tests measure college readiness, some students perform better on one than the other.
What’s the Difference Between ACT and SAT?
To test? Or not to test? That is the question. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States in March 2020, everything was shut down – including standardized testing. Between schools and testing centers staying closed for months on end, it became very difficult for students to take either the SAT or ACT. As a result, many colleges and universities across the country went test-optional for college admissions. The effects of COVID-19 on the testing world have extended to present day, with some schools remaining test-optional for another admissions cycle and others making the move permanent.
Despite the circumstances, U.S. News and World reports that “in the class of 2020, nearly 2.2 million test-takers completed the SAT at least once while about 1.7 million students took the ACT.” Obviously, preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT is still a priority for many college-bound students. If that’s the case for you, it’s time to get to know the difference between the SAT or ACT.

SAT vs. ACT: Content

Though both standardized tests measure college readiness, their content is a little different. Or, more accurately, students respond to their material differently.
It is said that those students who are better at English typically test better on the ACT, while those who are more math-minded excel at the SAT. That’s not to say that students should avoid the SAT if they are a poor math student; it’s simply a trend that may hold true for them. On that note, however, there is not one test that is easier than the other. They’re both considered difficult. Finally, while the SAT has phased out its subject tests as well as the optional writing component, the ACT still gives test takers the option to complete a writing test. Some colleges require or recommend this component of the ACT. If writing happens to be a strong suit, it will only enhance the college application to complete this portion as well.

SAT vs. ACT: Time, Scores and Cost

The SAT takes roughly three hours to complete. The ACT comes in at just under three at two hours and 55 minutes. However, the optional writing portion tacks on an additional 40 minutes. Here is the breakdown for the SAT: • Reading: 65 minutes • Writing and Language: 35 minutes • Math: 80 minutes For the ACT: • Reading: 35 minutes • English: 45 minutes • Science: 35 minutes • Math: 60 minutes Scoring for the SAT ranges from 400 – 1600. The ACT ranges from 1 – 36 (the ACT Writing Test is scored separately). To compare scoring between the SAT and ACT, check out this chart from StudyPoint. Finally, the SAT costs $55 to take, and the ACT is $60. For students that want to take the writing portion of the ACT, an additional $85 is required at the time of registration. If financial assistance is required to make taking the test feasible, there are fee waivers available. Students should reach out to their guidance counselor for more information.

SAT vs. ACT: Prepping

Most students will spend years preparing for the exams. Many will complete this test prep in the classroom, while others may opt for additional test prep outside of school hours. Either way, expect that test prep will be incorporated into your curriculum somehow. Students can also practice for the SAT by taking the PSAT/NMSQT. This test is administered to juniors – and some sophomores – in October. It tests the same skills as the SAT and can provide students with an idea of how well they would perform on it. NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The National Merit Scholarship Program utilizes scores from this test to administer scholarships to qualifying students. Over $300 million in college scholarships are available through this test. The ACT also has a practice test that students can take during their sophomore year – the PLAN test. Much like the PSAT, the PLAN informs students of how well they might perform on the ACT. It will also tell students whether they’re on the right track, academically-speaking, to being admitted to college. Students do not have to take either the PSAT or PLAN during their sophomore year or fall semester of their junior year. However, it is recommended that students take the SAT or ACT sometime during their junior year. Taking the tests during their junior year gives students some breathing room and helps to answer a few questions: • Did I perform better on one test over the other? • Should I retake either test in hopes of scoring better? • Are colleges I’m applying for test-optional? It has been proven, generally, that students perform better on these tests the more they take them. It’s not unusual for a student to take either the SAT or ACT two to three times before sending test scores to colleges. The ACT also allows for a Superscore to be sent to colleges. An ACT Superscore is the average of the four best subject scores from each of a student’s attempts. For instance, if you scored better on the English section the second time you took the test and then better on the math portion the third time you took the test, the Superscore test results will send the English score from the second test and the math score from the third test.

Taking the Tests

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which test a student takes. More analysis and strategy should go into whether they should take a standardized test. Students should start planning which colleges they want to seek admission to during the fall semester of junior year. With that timeframe, students can examine whether the colleges they’re looking into are test-optional or not. If the colleges are test blind or test-optional, then it doesn’t make sense to take the SAT or ACT. However, if a student is still undecided on where they plan to apply, the wisest option for them is to prepare as if the schools they are applying for still require a standardized test score to be considered for admission. In this case, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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