what are the differences between the sat and act


Disclaimer: This article is for the 2005 SAT. Click here to learn about the new, 2016 SAT.

What are the differences between the SAT and ACT exams?

Parents and students ask the Student-Tutor advisors and me all the time:

    • “What is the difference between the SAT and ACT?”
    • When should my kid take them?
    • What is a good SAT and ACT score?”

These are great questions!

The SAT and ACT exams have some similarities and some important differences.

In this blog we will try to outline some details in a clear way to hopefully get parents off to a good start in understanding whether their kids should take the SAT or ACT or both. And then, once you decide which (neither or both) are right, how to go about taking the exam and getting the best SAT and ACT score possible.



What’s it stand for?

Scholastic Aptitude Test
originally at least
American College Testing

Type of Test

(tests your likelihood of future success in college)
(tests what you already have learned)

Test Sections

– Reading (sentence completion and passage-based questions),
– Writing (an essay and questions to identify grammar, punctuation, and construction errors),
– Math (arithmetic, geometry, and algebra).
– English,
– Mathematics
(same as SAT test but with some trigonometry),
– Reading,
– Science,

– and an optional Writing Test.

Test Scoring

Maximum Score = 2400
200-800 per section
Good Score = depends on school applying to
Maximum Score = 36
1-36 for all four areas, final score is average of them
Good Score = depends on school applying to

Test Duration

over 3.5 hours
– six 25-minute sections (two writing, two reading, two math),
– two 20-minute sections (one reading, one math),
– one 10-minute writing section with just grammar questions.
about 3 hours
– 45 minutes for the english test,
– 60 minutes for the math test,
– 35 minutes for the science test,
– 35 minutes for the reading test

Using Calculator Allowed?

Yes, but
– only on math section
– only approved calculators
Yes, but
– only on math section
– only approved calculators

Penalty for Guessing?

– (-1/4) point in multiple choice
– no penalty in grid-in math section
Guess away! (Educated guesses)

Which is easier?

SAT if…
– …you are strong in writing and grammar
– …you have not taken any trig classes
– overall a little easier in reading and grammar
– overall a little harder in the math

Testing Dates

7 times a year
– usually in October, November, December, January, March, May and June.
5 times a year
– usually in October, December, January, March, May and June


Okay, great! So which should my child take? To answer this last question, it does depend on a couple things.


The SAT, ACT, or both the SAT and ACT!?!

#1: the schools to which your child is applying

– The SAT I, also called “the general SAT,” is an accepted as an admissions requirement by almost all colleges and universities, more popular with colleges on the West coast.

– The ACT is an accepted as an admissions requirement by most colleges and universities, more popular with colleges in the Eastern part of the United States.

To know for sure which exam is required (sometimes you can use either or), you must check with your child’s university choices. They provide this information on their application forms and on their websites.

 #2: how your child performs

– see “Which is easier?” in chart above

– some other factors to consider:

1. ACT plus: Questions tend to be more straightforward, or easier to understand at first read-through.

    SAT example –  What is your view of the claim that something unsuccessful can still have some value?
    ACT example – In your view, should high schools become more tolerant of cheating?

2. ACT plus: It can be seen more as a “big picture” test. Admissions officers at the university will look at how your child did on each section of the SAT, but on the ACT, they look at the composite/averaged score.

3. ACT plus/minus: There is a Science section.

4. ACT plus/minus: It tests more advanced math concepts including trigonometry. (Both test arithmetic, algebra I, geometry, and algebra II)

5. ACT plus/minus: Although the ACT Writing Test is optional on the test day, it is required by many schools.

6. SAT plus/minus: It has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary (great if you have a strong vocab)

7. SAT plus/minus: It is broken up into more sections than the ACT (see above in chart). That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the student.
– Does your child prefer to get a break from one type of problem for a while?
– Or does he or she prefer to just push through and finish everything in one subject?


One last bit of SAT and ACT advice

It is 100% possible to improve both scores with practice, knowing test-taking strategies, and going into the exam prepared and confident.

High scores can help garner lots of money in scholarships, so scoring the highest your child possibly can will open lots of college doors and scholarship pocketbooks.

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Laura earned a Master's degree in Secondary Education plus Teaching Certification for Mathematics and Psychology in both AZ and CA. Her undergraduate work was in Psychology with a minor in German from UCLA where she graduated magna cum laude. She has been tutoring since the 90's, was a high school teacher 2006-2011, and still teaches for a local college. Laura is passionate about teaching, learning, entrepreneurship, and traveling the world with her husband, their dog Tuck, and her Macbook Pro. -- Join Laura on Linkedin & Twitter!
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