What is the Difference Between the SAT and ACT?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2018
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The SAT and ACT are both standardized tests which are used by admissions committees to evaluate college applicants. Historically, colleges required one or the other, forcing students to take both if they wanted to apply to a wide array of colleges. Today, many colleges accept both tests, allowing students to pick which test they would like to use. There are some significant differences between the SAT and the ACT which should be carefully considered by students who are applying to college.

The fundamental difference is that the ACT tests knowledge, while the SAT is focused on critical thinking and logic. Students who do well on knowledge-based tests in the classroom are good candidates for the ACT, as they will have the breadth of knowledge to handle the types of questions which come up on this test. Students who have good critical thinking and logic skills may find the SAT more manageable.

Both tests take around the same time, although the ACT has more questions. Students also get to decide which scores they want to send, which allows them to exclude poor scores. In the case of the SAT, students are penalized for guessing and getting wrong answers, while the ACT has no guessing penalty.


The SAT includes three basic sections: math, verbal, and writing. The math section includes several answers which will need to be filled in by users, rather than answered with multiple choice questions, and the skills required top out at Algebra II. The verbal section is very heavy on vocabulary and reading comprehension, while the writing section requires students to demonstrate writing skills. The total score for all three sections can vary from 600-2400, with each section being scored between 200-800.

On the ACT, students have four sections: math, English, reading, and science reasoning. Students can also complete an optional essay for a fifth section. The essay is scored separately, and not all schools require it. The science reasoning section is one of the key differences between the ACT and the SAT, while the English section focuses heavily on grammar, rather than vocabulary. The reading comprehension section is similar to that found on the SAT, while the math includes Trigonometry, requiring more advanced skills than the SAT. Scores range between one and 36.

Students can certainly take both tests if they like, as the test preparation is fundamentally similar. Students who aren't sure about which test they want to take may want to consider taking free practice tests provided by both testing companies to get an idea of how well they will score. These tests can also give students a feel for the format and style of the test to see how they like it.



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