SAT Tip: How Do the SAT and ACT Tests Differ?

Photograph by Guillermo Perales Gonzalez

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

If you’re in your sophomore year of high school, it’s important to start getting serious about your college applications. For most, this means taking a standardized test such as the SAT or ACT. Confused about the two tests? Not sure which one to take? Let’s see how they size up.

The basic difference between the SAT and the ACT is their format. The SAT is one test consisting of 10 sections with three areas: Writing, Critical Reading, and Math. The first section is always an essay that is 25 percent of the Writing score. The ACT consists of five separate tests of varying lengths testing five areas: English, Math, Science, Reading, and Writing. Unlike the SAT, the Writing section (the essay) on the ACT will always be last and is optional (though highly recommended).

Scoring-wise, there is no penalty on the ACT for marking incorrect answers on multiple-choice questions, while the SAT deducts ¼ of a point for each wrong answer. On the SAT, each of the three sections will receive a score between 200 and 800. The highest possible SAT score is a 2400. Most students aim to “break 500” in each section to become a competitive applicant.

On the ACT, you will receive a separate ACT score (from 1 to 36) for each of the five tests as well as a combined English/Writing score for those taking the Writing test, and a composite ACT score, which is an average of the first four tests. The composite score is also between 1 and 36. A composite score of 26 puts a student in the 90th percentile.

In general, the SAT is the preferred test for schools on the East and West coasts, while the ACT remains popular with schools in the Midwest and the South. Many schools accept both, however. Make sure to look at the admissions website of your top 10 schools to see which they prefer or accept. Many students score better on one test over the other but take both tests, determining which score to submit afterwards. The ACT Math is typically harder than the SAT Math and includes some trigonometry, while many students find the format of the ACT English test easier than the SAT Writing questions.

Luckily, both the ACT and the SAT test similar math, grammar, and critical reading areas, so it is entirely possible to study for both at the same time, though it’s probably easier to start with the SAT. You can even take a full-length practice SAT test free online to get a feel for the format and tested concepts.

Vivian Kerr has been teaching and tutoring in the Los Angeles area since 2005. She graduated from the University of Southern California, studied abroad in London, and has worked for several test-prep giants tutoring, writing content, and blogging about all things SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT.

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