At first glance, the two tests are not very different: both are officially recognized as valid tests for admission to American colleges, so the choice of which to take remains absolutely at the student's discretion. Following the changes to the SAT test in 2016, the two exams have different similarities:
- Both contain similar sections (Reading, Math, etc.) which appear only once and in a predefined order.
- For both tests there is no penalty in case of wrong answer.
But now let's see in more detail which are the key differences between the two tests that could help us to consider and choose the best test for us.
1) Time for each question
In the SAT you have more time in all sections to answer the questions, in particular in the "math" section, where you have about 30 seconds more for each question than in the same section in the ACT. Therefore, if time management (especially in the “math section”) is one of the aspects that worries us most, the SAT could be the choice that allows a little more tranquility and reflection. In the SAT there is 43% more time per question than in the ACT.
2) The use of the calculator
While it is possible to use the calculator for all math questions in the ACT, the SAT contains a subsection of the math part in which use is not allowed: 20 questions (out of 58 math totals) for 25 minutes. Questions without a calculator are more based on reasoning, and therefore, they are structured, so that they can be solved without using the tool, but if mathematics without a calculator is unthinkable for you, ACT is probably an option to consider.
3) The science section
Another important difference concerns the "Science section": the ACT has an entire section dedicated to science while the SAT does not. However, this does not mean that scientific topics are not addressed and tested in the SAT, but this does not happen within a specific section. In the SAT you can often find scientific-themed passages and questions about them in the Reading, Writing and Math sections. Certainly, however, in the calculation of the final result, the scientific section of the ACT carries greater weight.
4) The weight of the Math section in the final result
The influence of the mathematics part on the final score varies significantly between the two tests. In the ACT the "Math Section" constitutes a quarter of the final result, while in the SAT, it represents half of the total evaluation: therefore, if you think that mathematics is not exactly your strong point, in the ACT it will certainly not affect your final result, if you don't achieve a brilliant score.
5) Open answers and multiple answers in the "Math Section"
While in the ACT all the math questions are multiple-choice, the SAT contains about 13 questions in the section that are open-ended, i.e. you cannot choose between a series of options given, but you have to give what we think is the correct answer.
6) Order of "Reading Questions"
In the Reading part of the SAT, all the questions follow the chronological order of the passage to which they refer. On the contrary, the questions in the ACT Reading do not follow the order of the contents in the various articles and therefore the first question could refer to the final part of the text, the second to the initial part and so on. Therefore, in the SAT, the chronological order of the questions in this section generally saves time.
SAT and ACT examine different educational fields. Essentially, the ACT is more rigidly structured on the knowledge and skills taught in the "preparatory programs" for college. The SAT, on the other hand, leaves room for logic and is less closely linked to high school and college curricula.
This analysis provides a starting point for reflection to better evaluate which of the two tests represents the most appropriate choice for us, but our advice is not to stop at this: it is very useful to visit the official websites of SAT and ACT (both contain information and exercises that can guide us in the choice) or search online for simulations of both tests.