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SAT vs ACT: Which test is a superior fit for you?

You’ve heard this time and again; “SAT and ACT are the most popular tests taken by applicants to study abroad.” We know you keep pondering which one ranks over the other and of course which one should ‘you’ be prepping up for?

In this world of information overload, we know how tough it is to get lost in conflicting viewpoints and (not-so) expert advices… So let’s make your life easy and put the two sides of the coin objectively for you to decide…

Relax. Take a deep breath. Get on board with us. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about SAT and ACT…and maybe some more…

At the first glance, the two tests don’t seem that different. Both the ACT and SAT are nationally recognized standardized tests and common admission requirements for US schools. Catering primarily to high school juniors and seniors, each test measures students’ proficiency in various critical skill areas — such as problem solving and reading comprehension — that are necessary for college success.Additionally, because all US colleges and universities accept scores from either the ACT or SAT, there’s no advantage in taking one test over the other. This means you can apply to the same schools, regardless of which test you decide to take!But what about the actual content of the two tests? Though not identical, the ACT and SAT are quite closely related. Now, both exams:


  • Contain similar sections (Reading, Math, etc.) in a predetermined order, with each section appearing just once
  • Offer an optional essay section whose score does not count toward your total score
  • Use rights-only scoring, meaning you will not be penalized for incorrect answers
  • Contain entirely passage-based Reading and English/Writing questions (called “English” on theACT and “Writing and Language,” or “Writing,” on the SAT)


Despite all of these deceptive similarities, there are still many ways in which the SAT and ACT differ from each other. Let’s take you on a grand tour on what sets them apart…


That ticking clock!


Hate to work under time pressures? Then you might prefer the SAT over the ACT. This is because the SAT gives you more time per question than the ACT does. You’ll have some of the biggest increases in time per question on the SAT Math and Reading sections, with the Math Calculator subsection allotting you nearly 30 seconds more per question than the ACT Math section! So if you’re worried about time management — particularly on math questions — the SAT offers much more workable and far less stress-inducing time constraints than the ACT does.


Hey, young scientist!


Another major difference has to do with science. While the ACT contains a section entirely devoted to science, the SAT does not

Like the other three ACT sections, Science constitutes one-fourth of your total ACT score. So if you’re a science whiz who loves the idea of having an entire section focused on scientific data, graphs, and hypotheses, the ACT may be a better fit for you. That being said, the SAT does test scientific concepts — just not through a separate Science section. On the SAT, you’ll occasionally come across questions dealing with scientific passages, data, and charts on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections.


‘To use or not to use the calculator…. thy is the question!’


Unlike the ACT for which you may use a calculator on all Math questions, the SAT contains a Math No Calculator subsection for which you may not use a calculator. Consisting of 20 questions, the No Calculator subsection is a mere 25 minutes long, making it the shortest section on the SAT. (By contrast, the Math Calculator subsection is 55 minutes long and consists of 38 questions.) As a result, if you struggle with solving math quickly or without a calculator, you’d probably fare better on ACT Math than you would on SAT Math. On the other hand, if you’re confident in your math skills and can work fast without a calculator, the SAT is a solid option.


Let’s talk about ‘Math’…the only place where one can buy 72 watermelons and not wonder why!


In regard to math content, the both have a big emphasis on algebra. But the ACT also tests a couple of concepts that the SAT doesn’t focus on as much. For instance, the ACT has a much larger focus on geometry, which makes up about 35-45 percent of ACT Math. By contrast, geometry accounts for less than 10 percent of SAT Math questions. The ACT also tests a few concepts that the SAT doesn’t test at all. These include things such as matrices, graphs of trig functions, and logarithms. So what does all of this mean for you? If you’re good at algebra and data analysis, you’ll likely do well on the SAT. But if you’re a fan of trig functions and geometry, the ACT is a better choice.

How big of a role will Math play in your final score? The answer to this question depends on whether you’re taking the ACT or SAT. On the ACT, Math accounts forone-fourth of your total score (your Math section score is averaged with your other three section scores). On the SAT, however, Math accounts for half of your total score, making it twice as important on the SAT! So if math isn’t your strong suit, consider opting for the ACT. With the ACT, a lower Math score won’t negatively affect your total score as much as it will on the SAT.


Watson, let’s not theorize before we have all the evidence!


Are you good at pinpointing areas in texts to support your answers to questions? If so, the SAT may be a better fit for you.Evidence-support questions are a big part of SAT Reading but are entirely absent on ACT Reading. These questions build off of the questions that come before them and ask you to cite specific lines or paragraphs as evidence for your answer to a previous question.

Evidence questions can be somewhat tricky, especially if you’re not sure where you found your answer in the passage. So if you’re not into the idea of interconnected questions, try the ACT instead (whose Reading questions are always separate from one another).


What comes after/ before?


On SAT Reading, all questions given to you follow a chronological order — that is, in the order of the passage to which they refer. But on ACT Reading, questions can flow randomly and do not routinely follow the order of the content in the passages.

As a result, SAT Reading questions are generally easier to follow and thus easier to answer than ACT Reading questions.Chronologically ordered questions can also save you time on the SAT, as you won’t need to search the entire passage for the area to which a question is referring.


History begins in a novel….and ends in an ‘Essay’!


The last major difference between the two tests deals with essay content. On both the ACT and SAT, the essay component is optional; however, what you must write about differs depending on whether you’re taking the SAT or ACT.

On the SAT, you’ll be given a passage, which you must read and then analyse. Your essay will dissect the author’s argument using evidence and reasoning. In other words, you will not be giving your own opinion.

On the ACT Writing section, however, your task is different. For this essay, you’ll read a short passage about an issue and then analyse the different perspectives on this issue. But unlike the SAT Essay,you’ll also give your own opinion on the issue here.

Now, the question that has dared to give you sleepless nights is finally to be answered…


ACT vs SAT: which test is a better fit for you / your child?


Well, to begin with, no test is easy or hard but they are different. Students must identify the differences and understand their own liking or comfort zone to decide which test is right for them. The pattern of both the tests is the same, with some exceptions that have been highlighted in this article.

Students may take whichever test they prefer (assuming there are available testing locations for both tests). If you’re not sure which test your child would prefer, consider the key differences between the ACT and SAT. Some students find that the ACT caters to their strengths more so than the SAT, and vice versa.

Questions are evidence and context-based in an effort to focus on real-world situations and multi-step problem-solving Questions be like? Straightforward, questions may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher
Reading, relevant words in context, math, grammar & usage, analytical writing (optional) What are we talking about? Grammar & usage, math, reading, science reasoning, and writing (optional)
Reading: 1, 65-min section; Math: 1, 25-min section (no calculator) & 1, 55-min section (w/ calculator); Writing & Language: 1, 35-min section; Essay: 1, 50-min section (optional) The laps I need to cross? English: 1, 45-min section; Math: 1, 60-min section; Reading: 1, 35-min section; Science: 1, 35-min section; Writing: 1, 40-min essay (optional)
Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing are each scored on a scale of 200-800. Composite SAT score is the sum of the two section scores and ranges from 400-1600 How will I be scored? English, Math, Reading, and Science scores range from 1-36. Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections; ranges from 1-36
No – you do not lose points for incorrect answers Are wrong answers penalized? No – you do not lose points for incorrect answers
Yes – you can choose which set(s) of SAT scores to submit to colleges. However, some colleges require or recommend that students submit all scores. Students should review the score-reporting policy of each college to which they plan to apply Can I cherry pick the score I wish to seny Yes – you can choose which set(s) of ACT scores to submit to colleges. However, some colleges require or recommend that students submit all scores. Students should review the score-reporting policy of each college to which they plan to apply.
Math questions generally increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section. Reading passage questions generally progress chronologically through the passage, not by difficulty level. Writing & Language passage questions do not progress by difficulty level. How grilling are the questions? For the English and Reading sections, the difficulty level of the questions is random. For the Math section, questions generally increase in difficulty as you progress through the section. For the Science section, passages generally increase in difficulty as you progress through the test, and questions generally become more difficult as you progress through a passage.
Arithmetic, problem-solving & data analysis, heart of algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, and trigonometry; formulas provided Let’s talk about Maths, maybe? Arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry; no formulas are provided
Seven times per year: March or April, May, June, August, October, November, December (note that some states offer the SAT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates) Offered when? Seven times per year: February, April, June, July, September, October, December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)
Typically about four weeks before the test date Registration deadline? Typically about five to six weeks before the test date

Now that the major differences are clear, it should be easier for you to pick the right test. We at PythaGURUS suggest that you carefully go through each section and try taking a diagnostic test of both the exams before making the final decision or choice of test. Compare the results and check which exam is more doable for you. There may be different scenarios. For someone who loves Science but not comfortable with Mathematics without a calculator, the ACT may be the right choice. For a student who is not comfortable with rigorous or fast paced exams and needs time to complete the paper, the SAT may be the perfect option.

Remember that colleges do not prefer one test over the other. They will pick the best scores irrespective of the test. So, prepare early for best results!

Wish to understand what works best for you? Give us a call and get consultation absolutely free of charge.

For over 15+ years as an Entrepreneur, and India’s Top Educationist, Jatin has led a range of initiatives in the Education Industry. In this role, he has created many successful educational services and products geared towards generating success for professionals aspiring to join IVY League and global Top Tier Universities for MBA Programs, Masters Programs, and undergraduate courses. He is the Founder and CEO of PythaGURUS Education, and has been recognized as a thought leader in the Higher education sector. Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Times of India, India Today, Business Today, Tribune, and many other national newspapers have recognized his work, and have given him numerous opportunities to be a regular columnist. He has also served as a panelist for NDTV, and other national news channels.

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