One of the most frequently asked questions at our office is: “Is the ACT easier than the SAT?” (and vice versa). This isn’t a simple question to answer. The two standardized tests are THE main tests that colleges use to assess your academic preparedness as part of your application. Although both the ACT and the SAT aim to test your general aptitude in similar ways, there are key differences that are unique to each test that may help you decide which test to take.
The SAT and the ACT are owned and administered by two different companies: The College Board (headquartered in New York) and the ACT (headquartered in Iowa), respectively. In the past, the SAT was mainly offered in the states along the two coasts and the ACT was mainly for students living in the mid-western states. The colleges in each region had a preference for a particular test depending on which test was most commonly taken by its applicants or available in the region. Now, however, practically every college accepts scores from either test. So, which test is right for you?
First, let’s review the similarities between the two tests. Both consist of four sections and run approximately three hours. Both have an optional essay section that push the total time to four hours. They aim to test your reading comprehension, logical reasoning, grammar and English usage, and quantitative skills. Neither test requires that you have specific prior academic training, unlike an AP exam or an SAT II subject test. Also, neither test has a guessing penalty. (The old SAT used to have a ¼ point penalty for wrong answers)
Now, let’s go over the key differences between the two tests. The ACT has more questions than does the SAT: 215 ACT, 154 SAT. The new SAT has only four answer choices in the multiple-choice questions, while the ACT still has five answer choices. The upside is that the ACT is entirely multiple choice, whereas the SAT has a grid-in questions in the math sections of the test. Speaking of the math section, ACT math questions cover more advanced material than does the SAT. For example, the ACT math section has questions about logarithms, geometry, matrices, and trigonometry. The breakdown on ACT math topics is a below.
ACT Math Topics
Pre-Algebra ------ 20-25%
Intermediate Algebra ------ 15-20%
Coordinate Algebra ------ 15-20%
Plane Geometry ------ 20-25%
Trigonometry ------ 5-10%
SAT Math Topics
Numbers and Operations ------ 20-25%
Algebra and Functions ------ 35-40%
Geometry and Measurement ------ 25-30%
Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability ------10-15%
Also, unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn’t offer any formulas to test takers. You need to know all of the relevant formulas and be able to recall them during the test. Moreover, you have less time to answer each math question in the ACT than you do on the SAT. You have one minute for each ACT math question, whereas you have 75-87 seconds for each SAT math question.
Although the topics covered are slightly more advanced, there are two major advantages to the ACT over the SAT for those who are intimidated by the math section. The ACT math section comprises only 25% of your total score and all of the questions are multiple choice. In the off chance you panic or draw a blank during the test, you can always just circle an answer choice and hope for the best. (Let’s all hope this doesn’t happen to you!)
The ACT English section is comparable to the SAT Reading section. The ACT, however, has only four reading passages. Although the SAT has one additional reading passage (5), the questions in the SAT Reading section questions follow the chronologically. For example, the answer to the first question for a passage can be found in the beginning of the passage and the answer to the last question for a passage can be found in the conclusion of the passage. The ACT’s English section questions do not mirror the chronology of the passage; they’re random.
The ACT and SAT Writing sections are incredibly similar, although the format and style of the questions differ.
The most obvious difference between the two tests is that the ACT has a separate Science section. The SAT, however, does have similar science questions as well. They are just scattered throughout the test. For example, a few questions following a science-themed passage in the Reading section will ask you to use information in a graph or chart to answer a question, which is very much like the questions you will encounter in the ACT Science section.
The other notable difference between the two tests is the optional essay. The ACT essay has not changed and is very similar to the old SAT essay. It’s a thought-provoking prompt to which you will have to respond. The new SAT essay, however, does not ask you to respond to an idea or situation with your own opinion. Instead, the new SAT essay section has a long 650-750 word passage with which you will have to analyze and assess the author’s argument. The essay task is the same in every SAT, only the passage changes.
At first glance and assessment, the ACT does seem “easier” to take. The SAT, however, is the easier of the two tests on which you can improve your scores dramatically. There are specific tips and strategies that you can employ to improve your score on the SAT, whereas the trajectory of your ACT score improvement with test prep is a bit more nebulous. Nonetheless, some students will score better on one test than the other. I’d recommend that you prepare and study for the SAT. From personal experience and observation, students who work on the SAT also improve their ACT scores but SAT scores don’t always improve with ACT preparation. In short, if you aren’t interested in improving your score or are willing to dedicate the time to study for the SAT, go ahead and take the ACT. If that is you, why are you even reading this blog?
Test prep may seem daunting, but I promise that with just a bit of time and effort, the results will be more than worth it! Besides, standardized tests are almost guaranteed to be in your future regardless of what career path you choose – you have to take the MCAT for medical school, the LSAT for law school, the GMAT for business school, CPA exam to be an accountant, Praxis to be a teacher, USMLE to become a doctor, the Bar exam to become a lawyer, and the list goes on and on…
So, suck it up and study for the SAT and learn valuable test taking skills while you’re young and you’ll be well on your way to success!