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Differences Between the SAT and the ACT

Many colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, therefore choosing the test that better suits your skills can facilitate the process of applying to the right school for you. The SAT focuses on three sections while the ACT has four sections. The SAT and ACT are both standardized national college entrance exams and are used as a one of many indicators for student success and entry into a college/university. Preparing for them can be tough, but with the right planning, preparation and advisement, success is possible.

For the SAT these would be: Reading, Math, and Writing and Language.

For the ACT these would be: Reading, Math, English, and Science. They differ in format, but both offer an optional essay. Students that struggle with math may find the ACT significantly harder as it contains a wider range of concepts, more questions regarding geometry and trigonometry, and the ACT does not give any formulas like the SAT does. Keep in mind that the ACT has a science section that differentiates from the SAT. The science sections require the student to use specific strategies on the exam to be able to determine what right/wrong answers are per passage of the exam.

After extensive research the College Board has decided to make changes to the SAT for those taking it in 2016 and upcoming years. Please be aware of the following major changes:

  • No penalty for wrong answers. Students will want to answer every question on the SAT since there will no longer be a penalty for wrong answers. Currently, students are unfortunately penalized 1/4 points for every wrong answer.

  • The essay portion will become optional. Many colleges will likely require that students complete the essay, but technically, it will be optional.

  • Also, the type of essay students are asked to write will be different than the type of essay students are currently asked to write. In the words of the College Board, “students will read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument. They’ll need to support their claims with evidence from the passage.” The actual essay question (what the College Board calls the “essay prompt”) will be “shared in advance and remain consistent.” What will change from test to test is the source material or passage that the student needs to build his or her argument from.

  • There will be reading comprehension questions in which students have to, in the words of the College Board, “support answers with evidence, including questions that require them to cite a specific part of a passage to support their answer choice.”

  • The SAT will no longer be testing the kinds of vocabulary words that students only see on the SAT and will use words that are seen more in college and career, such as “empirical” and “synthesis.”

  • The math sections are going to focus on a more narrow range of topics: linear equations, ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning, and functions or complex equations. These concepts are on the current SAT but on the new SAT they will be focused on more heavily.

  • A calculator will only be permitted on some of the math sections. Currently, a calculator is permitted on all sections.

  • Back to a scale of 1600. There will be a separate essay score.

  • SAT will be available in both paper and digital forms.

While the SAT may not cover as much content as the ACT, new changes to the SAT require that students only use a calculator for one section of the math test. The ACT on the other hand allows for a calculator for the whole test; if you rely heavily on calculators for your math, the ACT may be the better option for you. Knowledge of scientific terms and data can also give you an advantage on the ACT, as the science section factors in the ACT composite score and can lower or raise your overall score.​

Furthermore, when it comes to reading both the SAT and ACT require attention to detail, but the SAT will give you a line number to refer to and questions proceed in chronological order, making the answers easier to find. The ACT focuses more on grammar while the SAT focuses on writing style, and the SAT tends to test more on vocabulary than the ACT. Finally, the ACT gives less time per question, so if you are a slow test taker you will probably want to avoid this test.

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