Education: ACT or SAT?

Cary, NC – The ACT has been in the news lately and a lot of students and parents may be wondering, “What’s the fuss?  What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT?”  Let’s take a quick look.


Both tests are standardized tests designed to help quantify how ready a student is for college. Both tests are long: the SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes long plus two 5 minute breaks; the ACT is 3 hours and 55 minutes long with one 10 minute break. Most colleges in the United States accept the results of either test for admissions purposes. On both of the tests, approved calculators may be used for the math sections.

“Both tests are good at what they measure,” says Greg Tarsa, owner of College Nannies & Tutors of Cary, “in our experience 95% of students end up in the same percentile for either test.”

Which suggests that most students can take whichever test they feel most comfortable with and it will not impact their college acceptance opportunities.

What’s the Difference?

So what is the difference? Historically, the SAT is much more popular on the East and West Coasts.  Once you get into the Midwest, though, the ACT is more widely used.  The SAT has been around longer: it was introduced in 1926 and acquired its familiar Verbal/Math sections in 1930.  The Writing section was added in 2005.

The ACT was introduced in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT and has grown in popularity ever since.

Structurally, the SAT has ten sections and the ACT has four.  Both tests have an “Experimental Section.”  You can’t tell which section is experimental on the SAT, but on the ACT it’s clearly identified and only appears on certain test dates.

Content differs also.

The SAT tests math up to 10th grade basic Geometry and Algebra II.  It also tests Critical Reading in the areas of sentence completions, short and long critical reading passages, and reading comprehension. There is also an emphasis on vocabulary. The Multiple Choice Writing section tests grammar, usage, and word choice. The SAT does not test for science.

The ACT tests math up to Trigonometry. The Reading Section has four passages: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. It primarily stresses grammar. There is also an entire section testing science.

Many students like the fact that there is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, where the SAT penalizes students for guessing.  On the other hand, many sections in the SAT are ordered with the easy questions first, so students can build strategies based on what they need for a final score and skip the last questions of those sections.

Which to take?

“We have three diagnostic questions we like to ask students and parents who wonder about which test to take,” says College Nannies & Tutors College Test Prep Tutor, Christina Dunn.

  1. Is your student comfortable with Science?
    The ACT has an entire section devoted to Science.  The SAT doesn’t focus on it.
  2. Is your student good with spelling and punctuation?
    The ACT tests for a wide range of spelling and punctuation.  The SAT does less of this (it tends to focus on semi-colon use).
  3. Is your student good at Trigonometry?
    There are usually about 6 questions about Trig on the ACT.  The SAT does not test for it.

Students who want to try one or the other test in advance of the real thing have a number of opportunities.  They can pick up actual practice tests from their student guidance departments.  They can find practice tests on-line via web searches.  Or they can participate in one of the many free practice test opportunities offered by tutoring companies in the area.

So, students and parents, do not be put off by the fact that the SAT dominates the market in the Triangle area.  Confidence is really the key when taking tests of this magnitude and importance.  Learn about the tests and take the one you feel most comfortable with.  Practice makes perfect–or at least raises your score.

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