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The Never-Ending Debate: ACT or SAT?

By Oliver. M & Nithin. P


Most high school students are facing an inevitable dilemma of picking between the ACT and the SAT. Despite both being long and stressful standardized tests, they have some key differences. Unfortunately, there is no “easier” option, as both are high-stakes tests that cover much of the same material. Which test is right for you?

The Key Differences:

When you take a quick glimpse, both tests look very similar. Both tests have English, reading, and Math sections, are about three hours long, and consist of multiple-choice questions. However, even seemingly insignificant details can have a huge impact on your performance if you’re not completely familiar with them.


1. Number of Questions:

The SAT has a total of 154 questions while the ACT has 215. While this may seem like a minor difference at first, it’s important to remember that having more questions gives you less time to work on each one. On the contrary, having more questions makes each one worth somewhat less, giving you more room to make errors. How well do you work under pressure plays a major role in your decision of SAT or ACT?


2. Science:

The ACT has a separate science portion on the test. Though the SAT does have some science-related questions in the reading portion of the test it does not actually test you on science content. How confident are you in Science is another crucial aspect to consider when making your choice.


3. Math:

Even though the difficulty level of the questions increases as you move through the Math section in both the tests, the depth of knowledge required is different.

  1. Topics: In addition to the common topics like arithmetic and algebra, the ACT has a much larger focus on geometry and trigonometry, while the SAT focuses more on problem-solving and data analysis.

  2. Calculator: The SAT contains a "No Calculator" section consisting of 20 questions with a time limit of a mere 25 minutes while the ACT allows a calculator for all questions.

  3. Formula: The SAT provides you with a diagram of math formulas, whereas the ACT does not.

Analyze these differences and evaluate your depth of knowledge in various math topics, your competence in solving math quickly, and your familiarity with formulae. These factors will help you make the right choice of SAT or ACT.


4. English:

Both SAT and ACT have reading and writing sections. While the writing is optional in both tests, the reading section has major differences.

  1. Critical Analysis: Evidence-support questions interconnect from previous questions and require you to cite evidence from the passage. These types of questions are a big part of SAT Reading but are entirely absent on ACT Reading.

  2. Flow: The flow of the questions in the reading section plays a role in speed and correctness. On SAT Reading, all questions follow the order of the passage to which they refer. But on ACT Reading, questions are random and do not adhere to the order of the content in the passages.

How comfortable are you in handling interconnected and random order questions does play a role in your choice of SAT or ACT?


What is the Choice?

While both the exams are widely accepted by most colleges in the US, which one to choose becomes an important choice because the scores are used for college admissions decisions and awarding merit-based scholarships. The fact being neither the SAT nor ACT is harder than the other, you can get a better idea by taking a couple of full-length official ACT & SAT practice tests. Compare your scores and comfort levels. At last, your choice depends on a clear understanding of your personal strengths.

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