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ACT® and SAT®: What's the difference?

Pencil on a scantronNo part of the college application process seems to be more intimidating than taking the ACT and the SAT, the standardized tests required for admission to thousands of colleges and universities. The first thing to know is that the ACT and the SAT are different tests. They are developed and administered by different companies, they test different areas of knowledge, and they are scored differently. Below are several differences.

The ACT

  • The ACT is administered by the American College Testing Program.

  • It tests four areas of knowledge: English (including an optional but recommended writing section), math, reading, and science reasoning.

  • Each area is scored separately on a scale of 1 to 36, and a composite score is also given.

  • The ACT English and reading sections are straightforward and content-based. The math section is academic in nature. The science section emphasizes analysis, interpretation, evaluation, basic content, and problem solving.

  • Guessing at an answer on the ACT and being incorrect will not lower the overall score.


The SAT

  • The SAT is administered by the College Board.

  • It tests math, reading, and writing skills, and also has an optional (but recommended) essay section.

  • The math and evidence-based reading and writing sections are each scored on a scale of 200 to 800. The optional essay is evaluated separately and doesn’t factor into the overall score.

  • The SAT math emphasizes real-world problem solving including analyzing data, charts, and graphs. A calculator is allowed on some questions. The SAT evidence-based reading and writing sections ask students to interpret, synthesize, and use evidence from texts.

  • There is no penalty for guessing.


Which Test to Take?

In order to decide what test to take, students should first find out which tests are required by the schools where they plan to apply. The ACT is more commonly used in the Midwest, while the SAT is common on the coasts. Most institutions will accept both, however, and when both are taken, most schools will use the highest score when evaluating the application. SAT/ACT comparison charts can be found online, such as here. Many schools will accept the ACT in lieu of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Some colleges do not require either the SAT or ACT (see FairTest.org for a list of test-optional colleges).

Test Re-Takes

It is recommended that students take standardized tests twice, once in the junior year and again in the senior year. The first attempt frequently disappoints students, and to some extent, a low score can be blamed on the unfamiliarity of taking a three-hour standardized test. Students are generally less anxious the second time they take the tests. Do not rely on taking standardized tests over and over to improve the score, however. Statistics show that most scores do not change drastically over three or more tries on the actual test.

Lindsay RosenmanLindsay Rosenman is a Career Educator at Acton Boxborough Regional High School, where she has worked in various capacities, including as a traditional school counselor, since 2002. She also is a Senior College Counselor at Campus Bound in Lexington, MA, where she has supported students since 2010. She holds a BS in Human Development from Cornell University and an EdM in School Counseling from Boston University.





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