ACT vs. SAT: What's the Difference?

ACT vs. SAT: What's the Difference?

When applying for college, there's a good chance that you'll need to submit standardized test scores as part of the admissions process. There are two main standardized tests used in evaluating you for post-secondary education — the ACT and the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Understanding the differences between them will help you decide which to take or if you need to take both. On top of that, knowing the ins and outs of the SAT and the ACT can help you be better prepared.

Both exams contain questions generated from a standard test bank, and students are timed for each section. Here's what you can expect from each test.

What's on the ACT?

The ACT is an achievement test that measures what you have learned in school. When you take the ACT, you are tested in the multiple-choice areas of:

  • English (75 questions in 45 minutes)
  • Mathematics (60 questions in 60 minutes)
  • Reading (40 questions in 35 minutes)
  • Science (40 questions in 35 minutes)

There is also an optional writing section (one prompt in 40 minutes) that is scored separately.

What's on the SAT?

The SAT is an aptitude test that evaluates your reasoning and verbal skills and is comprised of critical reading, writing and math sections.

The critical reading section focuses on your use and understanding of the English language as well as your comprehension, and it includes a writing section. The math section tests your understanding of math concepts and how to apply them.

The College Board, creators of the SAT, will introduce a redesigned SAT in March 2016. The sections and times are as follows:

  • Writing (essay): 25 minutes
  • Writing (35 multiple-choice questions on improving sentences and paragraphs, identifying sentence errors): 25 minutes
  • Writing (multiple-choice): 10 minutes
  • Critical reading (24 multiple-choice questions on sentence completion, short and reading comprehension): 25 minutes
  • Critical reading (24 multiple-choice questions on sentence completion, short and reading comprehension): 25 minutes
  • Critical reading (19 multiple-choice questions on sentence completion, long reading comprehension): 20 minutes
  • Math (multiple-choice and student-produced responses): 25 minutes
  • Math (multiple-choice): 25 minutes
  • Math (multiple-choice): 20 minutes

Additionally, there is a 25-minute unscored variable section designed to try out new questions.

Many schools accept either test score

In the past, students chose which test to take based on where the school they were applying to was located. Midwestern and western schools preferred the ACT, while eastern and Ivy League colleges required SAT scores. However, the International Business Times reports that the days of preferences based on geography are past. Now, most schools accept either test score with your application. There are still some colleges that favor one test over the other, so make sure to check ahead. If you plan to apply to schools all over the country, consider taking both standardized tests so you can submit the score the school prefers.

Studying for the tests

There are numerous study guides and websites that can help you study for the ACT and the SAT, providing you with sample questions and helping you learn techniques to more effectively complete them within the allotted time. There are also prep courses you can take for a cost. Check with your school to see if they offer any prep classes or recommend study materials.

Because of the differences in the tests, it helps to prepare for each exam separately. For example, according to the Princeton Review, the math questions on the ACT are more advanced than those on the SAT since it includes trigonometry. However, the questions on the ACT are often more straightforward than those on the SAT, requiring you to solve math problems using formulas rather than using reasoning and word logic skills.

When to take the tests

Most students take the test twice. Waiting until the spring of your junior year in high school to test the first time is advisable so you are more acquainted with the material and concepts presented on the tests. Students can repeat the tests in the fall of their senior year if needed. Some students do begin taking the tests during their freshmen or sophomore years in high school to practice and get an idea of what to expect.

The ACT and SAT are administered separately and are offered several times throughout the year. It's important to check the registration deadlines to ensure you register on time for the date that fits your needs.

Paying for the tests

There are registration costs associated with the ACT and SAT, including late fees if you miss the registration deadlines. It is possible to qualify for fee waivers for both tests, so be sure to check your eligibility before paying registration fees.

As of October 1, 2015, the ACT costs $39.50 without the writing option and $56.50 with the writing section. There is an extra $25 fee for late registration and a fee of $49 if you show up for standby testing without registering ahead of time. The SAT cost is $54.50 for the version with the essay. You can opt out of the essay and pay $43. There are also additional subject tests that cost $26 or $18, depending on the subject.

Before trying your hand at either the ACT or SAT, make sure you understand their format and how you will be evaluated. Decide which exam to take (or whether to take both) based on your goals and which schools you plan to apply to. Then you should take a look at the test dates and register for the date and time that works best with your schedule. Before you start studying, research the different materials available to you and choose a method that will be effective for you.

Remember that these tests are an important step to applying to college, and they are one of many factors that schools evaluate as part of your application. Careful planning and preparation are key to being as successful as possible on test day.