With so many colleges and universities going test-optional in light of the pandemic, don’t let standardized testing become an afterthought. We highly recommend that students sit for the SAT or ACT (if they’re able to) and that they prepare themselves as well as they can. Submitting test scores at the high end of a college’s range provides another piece of data to confirm a strong application.
But how do you know which test is right for you? To get you started thinking about which test you might prefer, here are some of the key differences between the exams and where you can find more information:
The SAT now has three sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. The College Board officially announced the end of the SAT Essay section; the last test dates to offer the essay are in June 2021. After that, the essay will only be offered in states where it’s required as part of SAT School Day (for some students taking the SAT at their own high school). The College Board has also eliminated all SAT Subject Tests.
The ACT contains four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The ACT also offers the option to take the test with an additional Writing section that requires students to write an essay.
The SAT has changed its content over the years. While it’s still designed to test critical reasoning and thinking skills, it now also incorporates curricular knowledge (what you learn in school). Curricular knowledge has always been the focus of the ACT.
The Reading section of the SAT tests comprehension and drawing logical inferences, while the Writing and Language section tests grammar, vocabulary, organization, and tone. The Math section of the SAT includes data analysis and algebra and now includes some trigonometry and geometry. The Math section allows the use of calculators for some but not all questions.
The English section of the ACT tests grammar, vocabulary, and style. The Math section tests Algebra I and II, geometry, and some trigonometry. Calculators are permitted for every question on the Math section. The Reading section tests reading comprehension with passages from a variety of subjects (fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences). The Science section includes questions about scientific writing (prose passages) as well as tables, charts, and graphs.
On both the SAT and the ACT, you will move through one section at a time. On the SAT, you will first complete the Reading section, then Writing and Language, then Math. The ACT will begin with the English section, followed by Math, Reading, and Science. The Writing section is last (if you choose to take it).
With the elimination of the essay section, the SAT now takes three hours (65 minutes for the Reading section; 35 minutes for Writing and Language; 80 minutes for Math).
The ACT takes roughly the same amount of time as the new SAT – 2 hours and 55 minutes to be precise (45 minutes for the English section; 60 minutes for Math; 35 for Reading; 35 for Science). Add another 40 minutes to that time if you choose to take the Writing section.
Number of Questions
There are a total of 154 questions on the SAT. There are 52 multiple-choice questions on the Reading section and 44 multiple-choice questions on Writing and Language. The Math section contains 45 multiple-choice questions and 13 questions that require the student to supply their own written answer.
There are 215 questions on the ACT. There are 75 questions on the English section; 60 questions on the Math section; 40 on the Reading section; and 40 on the Science section. All questions are multiple choice.
The SAT has an overall score range from 400 to 1600. This total score is divided between two main subscores: 200-800 for the Math section and 200-800 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The SAT also provides a variety of other subscores, including cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science that are based on relevant questions across each of the three main test sections.
Previous versions of the SAT discouraged guessing through a penalty for wrong answers (1/4 point each). Strategically, then, it used to make sense to leave some answers blank to avoid the possible deduction of points. However, this scoring policy has since been abandoned. You can only earn points for correct answers; you don’t lose points for blank or incorrect responses. So go ahead and guess even if you’re not sure!
Each of the four main sections of the ACT is given its own score between 1 and 36. These scores are then averaged to create the composite score, also between 1 and 36. Only the optional Writing section is scored differently (it’s out of 12). The ACT does not deduct points for incorrect answers.
You can see there are real differences between the SAT and the ACT, and many students have a strong preference when they start looking into the details. If possible, take a full-length diagnostic of each exam to see which you feel most comfortable with. Then you can maximize your efforts by studying for the exam that’s best suited to your strengths. For more information on each exam, practice tests, and registration, visit The College Board and ACT.org.
Tailored advice on your college applications, including whether to send scores and to which schools, is available through our services at Expert Admissions.