How the SAT Differs from the ACT

When you understand the basic differences between the SAT and ACT, it becomes easier to decide which test you want to take for college admission. Though either test will be accepted at any US college or university, some students believe they will score better on one test versus the other.

Mai Jumamil, former director of college prep programs at Kaplan, a New York-based education company told US News, “These are high-stakes tests; neither of them is going to be easy.”

Experts suggest that to help students make the decision on which test to take is to start with a practice test. This can help determine which exam is better suited for them. Jumamil goes on to discuss that students with a stronger English background “may flourish on the ACT” since it has more prominence on verbal skills. But, she says that for students who are stronger in math, the SAT “may reflect that much better.”

Other experts like Elizabeth Levine, an independent educational consultant and founder of Signature College Counseling in New York, suggest taking both tests by the fall of your junior year, then prepare for and retake your preferred exam.

When diving into the actual test, there are some major differences between the two. The ACT tends to be more straightforward, while the SAT has a more “tricky” way of asking questions and presenting answer choices. In good news, neither test will penalize for guessing, which is a recent change for the SAT. According to The Princeton Review, “prior to March 2016, the SAT did have a guessing penalty; a quarter of a point was subtracted from your raw score for every wrong answer.”

The English section of the ACT emphasizes basic grammar and punctuation, whereas the SAT focuses on grammatical quirks (i.e. passive voice or subject-verb agreement). In the Writing section, the SAT calls for more abstract thinking by asking you to apply specific examples to a broad idea to support your argument. The ACT essay usually deals with an issue that is relevant to schools making it more common to student experiences.

The trickiness of the SAT is the most prevalent in the Math section. The level of math tested on the SAT tends to be lower than on the ACT, but the SAT calls for you to use simpler math concepts in an unusual way. While you may know the formula needed to solve the problem, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the right answer. The ACT Math section is much more straightforward. If you give yourself enough time and know the formula, you should be able to get the correct response. 

When it comes to deciding ACT vs. SAT, consider taking a practice test of each to get a feel for the layout, tone and feel of each. Like Elizabeth Levine discussed, this can open your eyes to which test you prefer, leaving you to prepare for that exam. With both tests widely accepted at US schools—and some schools deciding to switch to test-optional admissions—choose the test that feels right to YOU. 

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