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The SAT vs. the ACT
Who might do better on which test:

Students who work methodically or struggle with time pressure, have a good grasp of reading comprehension nuance, or may have just memorized and then forgotten many high school math concepts


Students who can work quickly and accurately even under tight time limits, prefer straightforward questions with clear-cut answers, and have retained many high school math concepts and formulas

How the tests are similar:


There is no penalty for wrong answers. Students should always guess.

The SAT Writing and ACT English are both multiple-choice grammar sections with questions about nuts-and-bolts grammar, writing style, and sentence context. On both tests, the essay is reported as a separate score and does not affect the SAT Reading / Writing score or the ACT English or Composite score. Within the structure of the test, the essay is optional, but some colleges require it.

Three times a year, both tests offer the opportunity to get a copy of the questions and answers back: the SAT's Question and Answer Service (October, May, and August) and the ACT’s Test Information Release (December, April, and June). SIGN UP FOR THESE IF OFFERED ON YOUR TEST DATE.

How the tests are different:

Timing - Average of 70 seconds per question. Having more time can tempt students to overthink the questions.

Reading - Passages are more nuanced. Students need understand abstract principles, identify outside references, and decode sentences with unfamiliar vocabulary or unusual structure. Reading also includes simple questions about graphs and charts.

Math - Most questions focus on algebra, word problems, and/or statistics. Many involve tables or graphs and “real world” concepts like percent. There is less Precalculus and geometry. Students who have finished Algebra 2 or Math 2  will have seen 95% of the concepts. Approximately one-third of the questions are “no-calculator.” Students who are heavily calculator-dependent or work very slowly may struggle with this. All standard TI calculators are allowed on other problems. Some formulas are provided.

Essay - Students must read a long passage and analyze how the author uses persuasive strategies (e.g. humor, irony, statistics, diction) to make her point. It is not an agree/disagree essay that asks students to give an opinion on an issue.


Timing - Average of 50 seconds per question. Having less time can tempt students to rush and make careless errors.

Reading - Passages are more straightforward, but students must find the information quickly. It's easy to miss details.

Math - The range of math is broad, from simple numerical calculations up to trigonometry; however, many problems are straightforward if students them from school. Students who have finished only Algebra 2 or Math 2 will have seen 80% of the concepts. On all questions, students may use any standard TI calculator except the TI-nspire CAS. Formulas are only rarely provided.

Essay - In an agree/disagree format, students must formulate their own opinion on an issue and discuss how that relates to three perspectives provided.

The ACT also has a Science section that has no counterpart on the SAT. It doesn’t test science knowledge but rather facility and speed in interpreting graphs and charts. The format is similar to the reading comprehension's, but instead of paragraphs, the passages consist of a set of experiments.




Two main scores: Reading/Writing and Math - scored on a scale of 200 - 800. Scores are often added and reported as a total. The essay is scored separately on three components, each on a scale of 1 - 4. The essay score does not affect the Reading/Writing score.


Many colleges and universities superscore, recomputing a new total using the best Reading/Writing and Math scores from two different test dates.


Five main scores: Composite, English, Reading, Math, and Science - scored on a scale of 1 - 36. The Composite Score is a rounded average of the English, Reading, Math, and Science scores. The essay is scored separately on four components, each with a total score of 2 - 12. The essay score does not affect the Composite Score.


Only some colleges superscore, recomputing a new Composite score using the best subject scores from different dates. This information is usually available its admission website or by email from the admissions office.

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