As a college consultant, I am frequently asked about the SAT and ACT so I asked Mark Greenstein of IvyBound Test Prep to explain the differences between the two tests.
- The SAT has more intricate reading questions. It asks for inferences more often than the ACT, while the ACT more often asks for straight “find the detail” questions.
- The English aspect of the SAT Math questions often makes students less capable even when they know the math skills. ACT Math is more straightforward. It is closer to what students get in their classroom math textbooks.
- ACT Math includes some higher-level concepts not on the SAT: logarithms, matrices, high-level functions and complex exponents. The SAT has none of these.
- Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests calculus, and the SAT has thus far included very few trigonometry questions.
- SAT Math has one section where calculators are not permitted.
- The ACT has a full Science Reasoning section; the SAT incorporates some basic science in 2 to 5 Verbal questions.
- Neither ACT nor SAT invokes science that requires prior textbook study. The experiments presented can be understood without a biology, chemistry or physics background. Reasoning skills are more important than science knowledge for success on both these tests.
- The SAT ordering is: 65 minutes Reading, 35 minutes Grammar, 25 minutes Math without calculator and 55 minutes Math with calculator. An optional 50-minute essay is at the end. The ACT ordering is: 45 minutes Grammar, 60 minutes Math, 35 minutes Reading, 35 minutes Science Reasoning. An optional 40-minute essay is at the end.
- The SAT currently has a short “equating “section that students must take if they are not sitting for the essay. The ACT has no equating section.
- The SAT is less likely to grant a student extra time for a learning difference than the ACT. Both the SAT and ACT cave when parents squawk enough about not getting extra time.
- Over 95% of colleges super-score the SAT. Only about 50% of colleges super-score the ACT. Super-scoring is an advantage to all students taking the same test multiple times.
- The SAT uses higher-level vocabulary in its Reading Comprehension questions and answers. Though it does not test vocabulary directly as it did in the old “Sentence Completions,” a better vocabulary almost certainly leads to more SAT points compared with ACT points.
Greenstein also has these suggestions for test preparation.
For students who have 15 hours to diagnose which test will be better, take two ACTs contained in The Official ACT Prep Guide and two SATs contained in The Official SAT Study Guide. Use the Equating table (which shows relative percentiles) to judge which test is better and then prep only for that one test. For students testing under regular conditions, the PSAT and the ACT Aspire are NOT good diagnostics. They are shorter and their scoring tables do not exactly match their “parent” test’s tables.
For students who don’t have the time or inclination to make an ACT vs. SAT Diagnosis, prep for the ACT. This allows students to avoid the need for a strong vocabulary. The ACT is the more complete test, so if a student desires to take the SAT later, his ACT study will have covered almost all aspects of the SAT. Students needing SAT Subject Tests are better off with the ACT too because ACT dates never conflict with Subject Test dates. (Subject Tests are always scheduled on the same dates as SAT and NEVER on the ACT dates).
Mark Greenstein is the founder and lead instructor of IvyBound Test Prep, located in Newington, CT. They offer all levels of academic and test prep tutoring.
Stephanie Klein Wassink is the founder of AdmissionsCheckup.com, a virtual admissions committee, and Winning Applications College Consulting. For a pre-submit application review, click here.
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