The ACT and SAT are the two exams that secondary school students take before applying to American universities. Most institutions require one or the other, but not both. So the question becomes: How do you choose which exam to take?
Material-wise, the tests are very similar. They have practically equal amounts of math, reading, and language questions, and they each have an essay. It follows that, since the material is similar, the differences between the two exams mostly come down to structure. The key differences between the ACT and the SAT are four-fold:
- The amount of time students have for each individual test
- The total number of questions
- The presence of science material
- The type of writing that is required in the essay tests
After we discuss the differences, we will talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each exam. The goal of this discussion is to help you decide which exam is the right fit for you (or if you're a parent or counselor, for your student).
Time allotted and number of questions
Here is a breakdown of the number of questions on each test within both the ACT and SAT, as well as the time given for each.
As you can see, the ACT has a faster pace overall than the SAT. The ACT and SAT have the same number of tests, but the ACT has 32% more multiple-choice questions than the SAT. The SAT has also allotted more time to complete the essay section than the ACT has. However, depending on your student’s learning style, this does not necessarily mean that the SAT is easier.
After all, since 2011, more students now take the ACT each year than the SAT.
Again, the tests cover the same high school-level material. And again, the key to understanding the difference between the exams is in the structure of the tests and of the questions.
What is the ACT Science section? Why doesn’t the SAT have one?
As science and technology fields become increasingly in-demand, it may seem curious that the SAT still has no dedicated science section. However, this does not mean that it has no questions that test science skills. In short, both exams test science skills. The difference is that the SAT essentially "hides" these questions in its different tests, while the ACT consolidates them into one area.
The ACT Science test, naturally, tests a student’s ability to understand scientific processes and reasoning. Contrary to what some might think, the ACT Science test does not require people to memorize a huge number of science facts and regurgitate them on an exam. So if this is an issue of concern, you do not have to worry about that.
Several English-language articles on the ACT Science test claim that it has nothing to do with science. This is not exactly true. Instead of testing memorized facts from different science subjects, this section of the exam mainly focuses on a student’s analytical skills. These skills include interpreting data in tables and graphs, understanding the components of experiments, comprehending research, and identifying variables. Students will probably only need a background in science to answer one or two of the questions, if that. Most can be answered by using one’s analytical skills.
On the other hand, the SAT contains several data interpretation questions that are similar in many ways to the ones on the ACT. They are just scattered throughout the different tests on the exam.
The two math tests on the SAT test a student’s mental math skills by taking away their calculators for 25 questions. Then in the calculator-allowed section, there are a few questions that require looking at tables and graphs. These reasoning skills are also included in the Reading and Language section, as well as the optional essay section. In language courses in the States, we call this "reading comprehension," and it is a heavily-tested skill on the SAT.
So in sum, both exams do contain questions that test science skills. One consolidates them into one section, and the other spreads them out.
What is the difference between the ACT and SAT essays?
The two exams’ essay tasks are very different. The SAT provides a reading passage. Students must read this text and analyze how the author uses evidence, reasoning, and persuasive writing style to convey their ideas. Those who have studied English grammar and argumentation will recognize these three elements of the prompt as the three points of the rhetorical triangle: ethos, logos, and pathos.
The ACT, on the other hand, provides an issue and three different perspectives on this issue, which the student must consider before arguing for their own position. The student may choose one or more perspectives to support, or none at all. Regardless of which they choose, they must support their claim. Students who score exceptionally well also analyze opposing claims.
The two tasks are very different. Arguably, the ACT is much more open-ended and easily accessible to those who have not formally studied rhetoric or grammar.
Which is better for international students?
This difference in structure is where the differences between the two exams become clear. The ACT is very straightforward, while the SAT is a little trickier. So when trying to figure out which test your student should take as both an English Language Learner and a person who is studying abroad, it all comes down to how they learn and how they understand information.
Because the SAT is less straightforward, it may not be as easy for students who are still working on their English language skills. However, if a student is excellent at analysis and interpreting passages, then the SAT will be an excellent fit. Although the questions are trickier, the slower pace will allow for a little more time to eliminate incorrect answers.
Overall, we would recommend taking either exam, but many English Language Learners will fare better on the ACT. Its simpler, well-organized presentation helps students from all backgrounds build the skills they will need to understand the kind of research they will be required to read when they enter university programs.
If your student wants to take both exams, great! However, US universities only require one or the other, and it will usually be best to spend time preparing for one, rather than both.
Each exam has a lower-level version (the PreACT and the PSAT, specifically) that is designed to help first- and second-year high school students practice for the real exams, and also to gauge how they will perform when they take them. Occam tutors are here to help students work through them and help them understand their strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to help them understand both the structure and the content of the exams so they will a) not encounter anything unexpected, and b) take and do well on the exam that suits them best.
Read our Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Prep — it summarizes everything you’ll need to know, whether you are preparing to take the ACT next month or in a few years.
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