The SAT vs. the ACT


Manu Kondapi © 2013

The Real ACT Prep Guide is the official study book for the ACT, while there are several prep books to choose from for the SAT.

Manu Kondapi, Associate Editor

As standardizing testing season approaches for juniors and seniors, it is only natural to be overcome with stress. I’m not going to sugarcoat it- testing does matter for college admission, quite a bit in fact, and it is important to take it seriously. As someone who has slaved through the SATs, ACTs, and SAT Subject Tests during my junior year, I’d like to offer some advice to all of you as you begin the process.

I’ve been asked by several anxious underclassmen to differentiate between the ACT and the SAT, so here’s what I’ve found from personal experience.

The SAT emphasizes vocabulary.
If you love words and have a great memory, then this is definitely the test for you. However, if you’re not up to becoming familiar with over 500 vocabulary terms, the ACT may be a better fit.

The ACT Writing Test is optional.
Though it is recommended by most colleges, the essay portion of the exam is not required.  Be sure to check with your desired universities to determine whether you must complete the essay. The 25-minute SAT essay is necessary and factors into your writing score, while the ACT’s essay is not included in your composite score- it is listed separately on the score report.

The ACT has a “science” section.
Notice the quotation marks. The science section doesn’t require a thorough knowledge of science; I prefer to think of it as a reasoning test. You are tested on your ability to interpret and analyze charts and graphs. The huge passages that accompany these tables are usually composed of extraneous information.

The ACT math section tests advanced concepts.
While the SAT only tests arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, the ACT also includes a significant amount of trigonometry. Still, the ACT math is not necessarily harder- the questions don’t try to trick you as they do on the SAT. If you have taken a trigonometry course and are able to remember past concepts easily, the ACT is perfect for you.

The SAT seems to take eternity.
This might be personal preference, but I’ve found that four sections that each consist of one hour seem to be much more time efficient that 10 sections that range from 20 to 25 minutes. The ACT offers you each subject area in one chunk while the SAT splits the sections into three different parts. If moving back and forth between content areas is difficult for you, then the ACT is definitely the way to go.

 The ACT’s reading section is more straightforward.
Usually, it isn’t necessary to reread ACT questions. The answers are right in front of you, and there’s no need to read between the lines. The SAT reading passages require more inference and understanding of the main idea. On the SAT, most people overthink and use outside information, which actually jeopardizes their score. For SAT reading, you need to find the balance between inference and interpretation, and that can be quite difficult.

Personally, I prefer the ACT.  If you consider yourself academically, and especially STEM, inclined, then the ACT is the best fit for you. The SAT is better for those who have a penchant for deductive reasoning and are equally gifted in all subject areas. Most admissions officers care about your separate scores on each section of the SAT, while they usually consider your composite score on the ACT. Therefore, if you’re strong in certain subject areas and weak in others, you can usually make up for this discrepancy and end up with a great composite score.