ACT or SAT: 10 points of comparison

Stephanie from Knewton addresses your standardized test questions.

Today's post is again from our friends at Knewton - this time from test expert Stephanie Wertkin.

Most high school students planning to go to college know that they probably have to take some kind of standardized test. Often, the only question is: Which one? Many schools accept both the SAT and ACT. Before you make your choice (or decide to take both!), it’s a good idea to compare the ins and outs of each test.

Here are a few basic points of comparison:

1. Cost

SAT exam registration costs $45. The ACT exam alone costs $32 – but if you want to take the optional writing test as well, it will set you back $47.

2. Length

The SAT consists of a 25 minute essay, six 25 minute sections, two 20 minute sections and a 10 minute multiple choice writing section. That means the whole test is 3 hours 45 minutes – not counting the 3 short breaks you get in between.

The ACT consists of 4 sections that total 2 hours and 55 minutes. If you take the Writing Test as well that will add an extra 30 minutes, for a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes.

3. Number of Questions

The SAT has 140 questions; the ACT has 215.

4. Subject Matter

This is one of the most important distinctions between the two tests. The SAT tests reasoning and problem-solving ability. The ACT, on the other hand, is a curriculum-based test, meaning the questions are designed to test a student’s knowledge of high school work.

The SAT covers mathematics, critical reading, and writing. The ACT covers English, mathematics, reading, and science. There are some differences in the way each test approaches the subject matter: for example, the ACT contains basic-intermediate algebra, geometry, and four trigonometry questions, while the SAT only tests basic algebra, word problems, and geometry. While the verbal sections of the SAT emphasize vocabulary, the ACT focuses on grammar and punctuation.

5. Scoring:

SAT – Aggregate score 600 – 2400, based on total of 3 scores (Reading, Math, Writing, each scored on a scale from 200-800); Score of 0-12 for Essay
ACT – Composite score 1-36 based on average of 4 sections (English Math, Reading Science);  Score 0-12 for Optional Essay.

6. The Essay

The ACT essay is optional, while the SAT essay is mandatory. The SAT prompt is usually abstract and open-ended (i.e., do people learn from their mistakes?), while the ACT prompt is more specific and high school-centric (i.e., should more schools adopt uniforms?). On both tests, you’re expected to write an essay that makes a strong argument and uses specific examples to support that argument.

7. Scoring

The ACT only counts the answers you get correct, whereas the SAT deducts 1/4 of a point for all incorrect multiple choice questions.

6. Difficulty

There’s a prevailing myth that the ACT is easier than the SAT. However, there’s not much truth to this: The vast majority of test-takers score in the same percentiles on both tests. Since both tests are scaled (that is, your final score is based on how you do compared to everybody else), that’s really all that matters.

On the SAT, questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section (except reading passage questions, which progress chronologically through the passage). On the ACT, the difficulty level of the questions is random.

7. College Requirements

The majority of colleges in the U.S. now accept both the ACT (+ writing section) and the SAT.  However, just to be safe and to avoid confusion (and possibly despair) near application deadline time, make sure you know which scores the schools you are applying to require for admission. If you are confused about a school’s requirements, contact that college or university’s admissions office for clarification.

In addition to SAT or ACT (with the writing section), some  schools also require 2-3 SAT Subject tests.

8. Administration dates

The SAT is offered seven times per year: January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December
The ACT is offered six times per year: February, April, June, September, October, and December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)

9. National Averages

For the Class of 2009 the average SAT scores were: Critical Reading – 501, Mathematics – 515, Writing – 493
The 90th percentile scores were: Critical Reading – 670, Mathematics – 700, Writing – 650

The ACT national averages in 2009 were: Total – 21.1, English – 20.6, Math – 21.0, Reading 21.4, Science 20.9
The 90th percentile scores were: Total – 28, English – 29, Math – 28, Reading – 30, Science – 20

10. Score Choice

Students can select which scores they send to colleges by test date for both the SAT and the ACT. Scores from an entire test are sent—scores of individual sections from different test dates cannot be selected independently for sending. Some colleges and universities (particularly the more competitive schools) require students to send all of their scores.

The way that admissions offices deal with multiple SAT scores varies from school to school. For more on College Board’s “Score Choice” program and more information about how colleges evaluate your SAT scores, check out our blog post decoding Score Choice.

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