What’s the Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

With the majority of colleges and universities requiring applicants to submit either an ACT or SAT score as part of their application, it’s important for you as a parent to help your child decide which of the two tests they will perform better on. So what are the key differences between the exams? Let’s take a closer look at the major distinctions…

How long does it take to complete each exam?

  • ACT: 3 hrs 35 min with Writing

  • SAT: 3 hrs 50 min with Essay

What scores can your child receive?

  • ACT: 1(lowest) – 36 (highest)

  • SAT: 400 (lowest) – 1600 (highest)

 How are the exams graded?

  • Both exams are graded for right answers only. In other words, if your child is unsure of an answer,  it’s better to take a guess than to leave an answer blank.

Is there a science section? 

  • ACT: Yes. The ACT has a large math portion AND a science portion, whereas the SAT does not include a science section at all. This is one of the largest differences between the two tests – so if your child excels in science, the ACT may be a better fit.

  • SAT: No. The SAT does not contain a science section.

Can your child use a calculator and equation sheet? 

  • ACT: Although your child can use a calculator for the entire math section, there is no equation sheet (or cheat sheet, as I like to call it). In other words, even though your child will have a calculator, they must still know the correct equations and formulas to use for different types of questions.

  • SAT: For this exam, there is a calculator and non-calculator math section. Although there is a “no calculator” portion of the exam, your child will be given a diagram with all of the equations that they will need throughout the exam.

What kind of math problems can students expect? And is the math portion important? 

  • ACT: The ACT has a much broader range of math questions, covering topics that are not found on the SAT. This includes more geometry, trigonometry, matrices, graphing, and logarithms. If your child excels in higher-level mathematic functions, the ACT may be a good fit. But remember, the math portion of the ACT is only ¼ of your child’s final score.

  • SAT: The SAT has a much narrower scope of math questions, and does not include matrices, graphs, and logarithms. This test also includes a few free response-type questions, where there are no multiple-choice options to choose from. The math portion of the SAT is ½ of your child’s final score

Is the essay optional?

  • ACT: Yes, the essay is optional. The prompt will most likely be about your opinion on a given topic. As long as your child does just a small bit of prep work for the essay, I always recommend completing this section even though it is not required.

  • SAT: Yes, the essay is optional. Similar to the ACT, if prepared, I recommend completing this section. The prompt will most likely ask your child to discuss an author’s argument.

Should your child take both the SAT and the ACT?

  • No! Many students think it’s wise to try their hand at both tests to see which they perform better on. However, students perform better on each of these tests when they dedicate time to learning the tips and tricks and ins and outs of these tests. For this reason, it’s best for your child to dedicate his or her time really learning how to excel on one particular test, rather than wasting precious time mastering both tests.
  • Additionally, colleges do not prefer one test over the other; they view the SAT or ACT as equally impressive.

So how do you help your child decide whether to take the SAT or the ACT?

Take a careful look at how your child performs in his/her respective math and English classes. Although SAT math has a short answer section and accounts for 1/2 of the total SAT score, this test covers simpler concepts and offers a sheet with all of the equations needed to solve any problem.

The ACT, on the other hand,  covers more difficult math concepts and also contains a science section. As a result, if your child has not yet mastered the concepts that may come up on the ACT math portion, the SAT may be the safer route.

Finally, full practice exams serve as the best indicators to help your child make a decision. I advise students to take one FULL, free practice SAT online, and then do the same for the ACT. You child should choose to move forward with whichever test he or she naturally performs better on.

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