SAT Exam vs. ACT Exam

Although the SAT has traditionally been the preferred exam on the coasts and the ACT the preferred exam in the Midwest, this situation has been altered somewhat over the past few years. More and more students on the East Coast are choosing to take the ACT, either in addition to the SAT or as a replacement. Though the ACT has acquired a reputation for being an easier (or at least a more straightforward) test than the SAT, the reality is not so black-and-white.
While some students may clearly favor the ACT over the SAT or vice-versa, many students do in fact perform about the same on both. In any case, students who have significant issues with the underlying verbal skills that are tested on both exams -- drawing inferences, understanding relatively sophisticated prose and academic writing, identifying main ideas, and applying correct usage and punctuation -- will find both exams extremely challenging, even if the ACT Reading Comprehension section may include more questions based on factual information included in the passages. Likewise, students who read constantly and possess exceptional grammatical and analytical skills will probably find both exams equally manageable. Students in the middle, however, may find it useful to take both exams, see which one suits them better, and then focus on preparing for the preferred test.

The ACT, for those who are unfamiliar with it, contains four sections:

1) English (Approximate equivalent of SAT Writing)
45 minutes, 75 questions testing grammar, mechanics, usage, and rhetoric

2) Math
60 questions in 60 minutes; unlike the SAT, contains trigonometry

3) Reading Comprehension (Equivalent of SAT Critical Reading)
35 minutes, 40 questions (4 passages, 10 questions each)
Passages always appear in the same order: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science

4) Science
35 minutes, 40 questions
Deals primarily with the interpretation of data in the form of graphs and charts; no outside knowledge is expected.

5) Essay
30 minutes
Scored 2-12 (2 readers, each of whom assigns a grade from 1-6)
Unlike the SAT essay, the ACT essay score is not factored into the overall score.

Scoring: Each multiple-choice section is graded on a scale of 1-36. The overall composite score is the average of the four sections rounded to the nearest whole number. Thus, if a student scores 25 English, 28 Math, 26 Reading, and 30 Science, the composite will be 27 (27.25 rounded down).

The ACT is score choice, and students have full choice in deciding which scores to send. Only composite scores can be sent, however (i.e. students cannot send only the English or only the Science section of a test). Colleges, however, will consider students' highest score on each subsection.

While it is generally true that the ACT is a less deliberately tricky test than the SAT, it is not necessarily easier -- the pitfalls are simply different.


The English portion tests many of the same concepts as the SAT Writing section, although the presentation most closely resembled SAT "fixing paragraphs." Five passages are given, each with 15 questions testing both grammar and rhetoric (sentence placement, inserting or deleting relevant information, style and tone).

While many of the grammatical concepts covered overlap with those covered on the SAT (comma usage, subject-verb agreement, sentence fragments, gerunds, antecedent-pronoun agreement), the ACT does place a stronger emphasis on punctuation (colons, dashes, and apostrophes) and the use of transitions such as In addition, Although, However, Moreover, Nevertheless, etc.

Reading Comprehension

In general, the biggest hurdle that ACT-takers face on the Reading Comprehension section is speed.

Unlike the SAT Critical Reading, where passage lengths are varied, each ACT Reading passage contains approximately 75-100 lines (the equivalent of an SAT long passage) and is accompanied by 10 questions. And unlike SAT questions, which are placed in chronological order of the passage, ACT questions are ordered randomly. The first question, for example, may concern information mentioned in line 65. In addition, questions often do not include line numbers, a technique that often forces students to spend significant amounts of time hunting through passages in search of relevant information.

In order to complete the section, students must complete each passage/question set in 8 minutes and 45 seconds -- a length of time that many students find simply too short. When considering SAT vs. ACT, students should take into account the speed at which they read. Slow readers are likely to confront significant timing issues regardless of how perceptive they may be, whereas fast readers who remember facts easily are likely to find the material relatively easy to manage.

While the makers of the ACT have been trying to bring their Reading Comprehension questions more in line with the kinds of reading questions on the SAT, in general ACT questions are still more oriented toward locating specific details or facts than toward making inferences about information not explicitly stated in the passage (although there is often an inference question or two) or about the function of particular pieces of information.

The Essay

There are two differences between the SAT and the ACT essay. First, students have 30 minutes to complete the ACT essay as opposed to 25 minutes for the SAT essay. While this may seem like a minor difference, in reality it affords many students the chance to write a full conclusion and develop all of their points more fully.

Second, ACT essay questions tend to be more specific and concrete than SAT essay questions. While the SAT asks students to reflect on abstract ideas or moral values such as the value of community or the nature of heroism, ACT questions often focus on the kind of issues that high school students are likely to encounter, e.g. "Should schools implement a dress code," or "Should students be required to maintain a C average in order to obtain their driver's license?" Students are therefore automatically limited in their use of evidence, whereas SAT students can support their arguments with virtually any literary work or historical event.


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