ACT and SAT: Eight Major Differences

Discusses the eight major differences between the ACT and the SAT. A great way for college-bound students and thier parents to decide which test is right for them.

ACT and SAT:  eight major differences

1) ACT includes trigonometry; SAT does not.

2) ACT includes “science reasoning”, which is logical reasoning based on data and scientific terms, but not based on classroom science.

3) SAT deducts points for wrong answers.  However with coaching, students can actually use this to their ADVANTAGE.

4) SAT Math demands scrutinizing the English aspect of math questions.  ACT is more straightforward, making it a more comfortable test, but not necessarily easier.  ACT math can include logarithms, high level exponent problems, and matrices; SAT does not.

5) SAT directly tests vocabulary.  This rewards students who are big readers or good vocabulary absorbers.

6) SAT Reading is generally less interesting and the answers rely more on nuance.

7) SAT requires a 25 minute essay.  ACT’s  essay (30 min.) is optional now.

7A) Optional essays typically mean a student with high aims must do them or look like a laggard.  The optional ACT essay will typically ask about familiar “school-related”  things that American teens are familiar with: “should dress codes be used in school?”,  “ should students receive academic credit for community service?” , and “should varsity athletes be allowed a less-demanding class load?” are among the recent ACT topics.

SAT essay topics are typically philosophical: “Are there heroes in the modern world?”, “is effort involved in pursuing any goal valuable?”, “should people prefer new ideas or values to those of the past?”, and “is there value for people to belong only to groups in which they have something in common?” were recent SAT prompts.

8) One difference that could be considered “major” is colleges’ USE of the SAT vs ACT: Almost all colleges “cherry-pick” SAT sub-scores, meaning they consider the best combination of Math, CR and Writing earned on different dates.  Only a minority of the “most competitive” colleges do this with the four ACT sub-scores.  Thus, a student who does not ping strong scores on all ACT sections on the same day, is being dragged down by one or more weaker sections, whereas cherry-picking SAT scores means one weak section on one day does not hurt.

Our suggestions:  

Make an early comparison.  Buy The Official SAT Study Guide ISBN # 087447-852-5 and take any two of the first three full length tests under timed conditions. 
Buy The Real ACT Prep Guide ISBN # 07689-3440-0 and take any two of the five tests therein under timed conditions.  Score them and use the accompanying table to compare the non-Writing sections (1600 SAT scale) with one another. 

If you really need to save time, you need not do the Writing sections for either (they compare almost the same).  SAT's two multiple choice Writing Sections and ACT's first section ("English") are almost the same.  And the Essay (Section 1 on an SAT and the last section on the ACT) are almost the same.   Students may skip these sections and thereby save time.  SAT thus becomes a six-section test (2.5 hours) and ACT becomes a three section test (2.25 hours).

Absent a comparison (or if the comparison shows nearly identical scores): most students seeking admission to competitive colleges who are capable of absorbing vocabulary should study for SAT and disregard ACT if scores are strong.  Add ACT prep if after two post-tutoring SATs the scores are unlikely to impress your target colleges.

Our equally important suggestion: START EARLY.  Colleges credit the best score, so it’s important to have three or more opportunities to take these tests.  With vacations, proms, and graduations, that means the students who plan in advance will have the best opportunities.  This is especially true for families that want to take advantage of Early Decision.  For students who’ve had a semester each of
Algebra and Geometry by the end of sophomore year, the summer before junior year and/or the fall of junior year are usually the best times to prep. 


ACT                                         vs.                    SAT                            Summary as of August 2012

“English”                                                         “Writing”

Essay  30 min (optional, at end)                Essay 25 min (required, at beginning)

Grammar                                                           Grammar

60 min              75 questions                              35 min              49 questions

Math                                                                 Math

60 min              60 questions                              70 min              54 questions

Need trigonometry, matrices                        No trigonometry, logs, matrices, or and complex numbers                                  complex numbers

Reading                                                           “Critical Reading” 

35 min   40 questions                              70 min                          67 questions

4 passages                               4 passages + 19 Sentence Completion questions.

Science reasoning 

35 min              40 questions                              no science

7 experiments

Equating Section                                             Equating section

No equating section                            25 min              Math, Reading, or Writing

3 hrs 10 min + 30min optional writing                   3 hrs 45 min

Approx 25 min extraneous time                           Approx 45 min extraneous time

$35 + $15 if doing Writing                                   $49


Superscoring – still a minority of the      Superscoring – by almost all colleges; most competitive colleges.                     Univ of Calif are 10 of the 12 exceptions.

“Score Choice” - yes                                       “Score Choice” – yes

Score Choice is not being adhered to by many colleges, which are asking to see all scores.  However, all these colleges claim to assess students on their best

Bottom Line:  the tests are similar.  No college requires one over the other, and to our knowledge, no college has a preference. ACT remains a bit broader in content.  ACT to a slight degree tests knowledge a bit more than resourcefulness.  Knowledge AND resourcefulness are “coach-able”.


Ivy Bound / Rising Scores offers tutoring and
ACT / SAT Prep classes in 21 states.  Ivy
Bound instructors include college students, grad students, and seasoned school
teachers who have all scored among the top 1% on the SAT or ACT.  Ivy Bound’s flexibility appeals to many busy
students and parents.  The group is able
to hold classes in any community and is often invited to hold classes in
schools that have been underserved by some of the larger test prep
organizations. Most Ivy Bound SAT prep classes are held on weekends at schools,
churches, synagogues, & community centers. 
Ivy Bound also holds small classes in parents’ homes where a parent or
student garners students with similar schedules and similar abilities.   Ivy Bound offers private and semi-private
tutoring for the SAT, ACT, SAT II and most AP tests.


Below is a list from Jennifer Tabbushof Los-Angeles-based Headed For College  of colleges that are super-scoring the ACT as of fall 2010:

Albion College


Amherst College

Babson College

Beloit College

Southern College

Boston College


Brown University

Bryn Mawr College

Butler University

Institute of Technology

State University System

Mellon University

Colby College


DePauw University

Eckerd College

Elon University

Atlantic University

Florida State


Georgia Tech

Hamilton College



Pacific University

Hendrix College


Kalamazoo College

Kenyon College


University in Maryland


Millsaps College

NCAA Clearinghouse

New York University


Carolina State University

W. Olin College of Engineering

State University


Pitzer College

Pomona College

Regis University

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Spring Hill College


Towson University

Trinity College

Tufts University

States Naval Academy

of Arkansas – Fayetteville

of Colorado – Boulder

of Connecticut

University of

University of Delaware

University of

University of

of Louisiana – Lafayette

University of

of Puget Sound

of San Diego

of South Florida

University of Tampa

University of
Tennessee – Knoxville

and Lee University

State University

University – St. Louis


Xavier University




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