College Bound: SAT or ACT?

By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED

at a glance

Although colleges consider the SAT and ACT interchangeable, these entrance exams are significantly different • Understanding distinguishing characteristics of each enables students to opt for the test that showcases their strengths


2.10.3 crop_TS_78770208Until a few years ago, most high-school seniors who were preparing for college took the SAT. The lesser-known ACT was limited mostly to students living in the Midwest. Today, however, the SAT and ACT are interchangeable.

While colleges consider the exams equally useful in assessing potential candidates, the tests are worlds apart in style, allowing students to select the exam that plays to their particular strengths.

Distinguishing Features

Understanding the distinguishing characteristics of the SAT and ACT, as well as knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, are vital in deciding which test will best showcase your skills. Following are the major distinctions between the two exams.

  • Time: While both tests are lengthy (over 3 hours), the SAT runs an additional 20 minutes. That assumes you take the ACT Writing section, which is optional but may be required by some competitive colleges. If you forego the writing section, the SAT is a significant 50 minutes longer.
  • Bias: The SAT favors highly analytical students with extensive vocabularies who test well. The ACT is more straightforward and, like an achievement test, mostly asks “what did you learn in high school?” It is kinder to students with strengths in math and science.
  • English: Only the ACT has this section, and it’s all about grammar. Students have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, and this section directly reflects the grammar you learn in English class. (On the SAT, grammar is included in the Writing section.)
  • Reading: The SAT’s Critical Reading section is characterized by passages that require inferential reasoning, critical thinking, and a sophisticated vocabulary. The passages, often on subjects unfamiliar to high school students, are written in dense academic language. Not surprisingly, they seem purposely boring to ferret out students whose attention drifts with analytical reading. There are five answer choices for each question, and sometimes one of them is a trap based on a nuance.

While in general the ACT calls upon students’ high-school knowledge, the Reading Comprehension section does not test prior knowledge; instead it calls upon inferential thinking. Although not nearly as vocabulary-heavy as SAT passages, ACT reading selections do require speed. There are four passages, each between 700-900 words, and students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. Each question has four answer choices, as opposed to five for the SAT, but like the SAT, they require careful scrutiny to avoid being tricked.

  • Math: The SAT only goes as far as geometry, so by sophomore year, most students have taken the math they need. The SAT questions, however, test problem-solving ability rather than mathematical knowledge. SAT math has the reputation for not always correlating with classroom courses and may ask students to combine, for example, knowledge of algebra and geometry in one question.

The ACT, on the other hand, tests Intermediate Algebra and Trigonometry, so most juniors have taken the requisite coursework. There are usually only three or four trig questions, however, and they are pretty easy to answer by knowing only two trig equations.

Both the SAT and ACT math sections have a multiple-choice format, but the SAT, in addition, has a section that requires students to record their own answers. (No guessing here!) Both tests allow specific types of calculators, while banning others.

  • Writing: The SAT Writing section, added in 2005, has some students wishing they were born a decade earlier. It consists of a one-topic, broad-spectrum 25-minute essay (e.g., Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?) and 35 minutes of multiple-choice grammar questions. The major challenge students have with the essay is planning, outlining, and writing within the allotted time.

The ACT Essay Writing section, also added in 2005, is optional as mentioned earlier. Check the requirements of the schools to which you’re applying to see if you’ll need this test. Students have 30 minutes to respond to one open-ended question that typically relates to high-school students (e.g., Would uniforms in high school be beneficial?).

  • Science Reasoning: This section appears only on the ACT. After reading seven passages, each describing data from an experiment, students must answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. While it helps for students to have a science mentality for this section, it is not based on prior knowledge. Rather, it tests the ability to analyze data. Students who are into science will be used to doing that and have an edge.
  • Guessing: Unlike the ACT, the SAT penalizes students for incorrect answers—which is why good test takers do better. Students who are able to make intelligent guesses score higher than those who leave lots of blanks.
A Third Option: Neither Test
Because good students can be poor standardized test-takers, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing is working to eliminate college admissions testing. As an alternative, the organization promotes fair and valid student evaluations. To date, 850 four-year colleges have made admissions tests optional. To see a list of these schools, go to Fair Test.

Joan M. Azarva runs Conquer College with LD/ADD, a website for parents of college-bound students with learning differences. She also has a private practice in the Philadelphia suburbs that focuses on students making the transition from high school to college.

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