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What is the Difference?

What is the difference between the SAT and ACT? They are both standardized tests and they both factor into the college admissions process. To learn about the differences between the two tests and how they compare, take a look at the facts below.

The SAT vs. the ACT

The SAT vs. the ACT

Colleges will accept either the SAT or ACT. So which should you take?

It's all about the numbers. Some students end up scoring substantially higher on the SAT; others do better on the ACT. In lieu of a crystal ball, we created The Princeton Review Assessment (PRA) designed to help you determine which test is better fit with your abilities.

To help you zero in on the right exam, here are seven key differences:

1. ACT questions tend to be more straightforward.

ACT questions are often easier to understand on a first read. On the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you're being asked before you can start solving the problem. For example, here are sample questions from the SAT essay and the ACT writing test (their name for the essay):

SAT: What is your view of the claim that something unsuccessful can still have some value?
ACT: In your view, should high schools become more tolerant of cheating?

2. The SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary.

If you're an ardent wordsmith, you'll love the SAT. If words aren't your thing, you may do better on the ACT.

3. The ACT has a Science section, while the SAT does not.

You don't need to know anything about amoebas or chemical reactions for the ACT Science section. It is meant to test your reading and reasoning skills based upon a given set of facts. But if you're a true science-phobe, the SAT might be a better fit.

4. The ACT tests more advanced math concepts.

In addition to basic arithmetic, algebra I and II, and geometry, the ACT tests your knowledge of trigonometry, too. That said, the ACT Math section is not necessarily harder, since many students find the questions to be more straightforward than those on the SAT.

5. The ACT Writing Test is optional on test day, but required by many schools.

The 25-minute SAT essay is required and is factored into your writing score. The 40-minute ACT writing test is optional. If you choose to take it, it is not included in your composite score — schools will see it listed separately. Many colleges require the writing section of the ACT, so be sure to check with the schools where you are applying before opting out.

6. The SAT is broken up into more sections.

On the ACT, you tackle each content area (English, Math, Reading and Science) in one big chunk, with the optional writing test at the end. On the SAT, the content areas (Critical Reading, Math and Writing) are broken up into 10 sections, with the required essay at the beginning. You do a little math, a little writing, a little critical reading, a little more math, etc. When choosing between the SAT and ACT, ask yourself if moving back and forth between content areas confuse you or keep you energized?

7. The ACT is more of a "big picture" exam.

College admissions officers care about how you did on each section of the SAT. On the ACT, they're most concerned with your composite score. So if you're weak in one content area but strong in others, you could still end up with a very good ACT score and thus make a strong impression with the admissions committee.


Topics Covered in the SAT vs. ACT

reasoning test Type of Test content-based test
Critical Reading: 2, 25-min sections and 1, 20-min section; Math: 2, 25-min sections and 1, 20-min section; Writing: 1, 25-min essay, 1, 25-min section, and 1, 10-min section Test Format English: 1, 45-min section; Math: 1, 60-min section; Reading: 1, 35-min section; Science: 1, 35-min section; Writing: 1, 40-min essay (optional)
reading, vocabulary, grammar & usage, writing, and math Content Covered grammar & usage, math, reading, science reasoning, and writing (optional)
tricky, questions can be phrased in ways that make them difficult to decipher Test Style straightforward, questions may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher
Math, Critical Reading, and Writing scores will each range between a 200-800; total SAT score ranges between 600-2400 Scoring English, Math, Reading, and Science scores will each range between 1-36.  Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections; ranges between 1-36
yes – you lose ¼ of a point for incorrect answers (except on the grid-in math questions) Penalty for Wrong Answers? no – you do not lose points for incorrect answers
yes – you can choose which set(s) of SAT scores to submit to colleges Score Choice? yes – you can choose which set(s) of ACT scores to submit to colleges
questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section (except reading passage questions, which progress chronologically through the passage) Difficulty Levels difficulty level of the questions is random
arithmetic, data analysis, algebra I and II, functions, geometry; formulas are provided in the test booklet Math Levels arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry; no formulas are provided
with private schools and schools on the east and west coasts; however, every four-year college in the US accepts SAT scores Tends to be more popular? with public schools and schools in the Midwest and south; however, every four-year college in the US accepts ACT scores
seven times per year: January, March or April, May, June, October, November, December Offered when? six times per year: February, April, June, September, October, December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)
typically about four weeks before the test date Registration deadline? typically about five to six weeks before the test date More Information

SAT vs. ACT Score Equivalency Scale

SAT CR+M (Score Range) ACT Composite Score SAT CR+M (Single Score)
1600 36 1600
1540–1590 35 1560
1490–1530 34 1510
1440–1480 33 1460
1400–1430 32 1420
1360–1390 31 1380
1330–1350 30 1340
1290–1320 29 1300
1250–1280 28 1260
1210–1240 27 1220
1170–1200 26 1190
1130–1160 25 1150
1090–1120 24 1110
1050–1080 23 1070
1020–1040 22 1030
980–1010 21 990
940–970 20 950
900–930 19 910
860–890 18 870
820–850 17 830
770–810 16 790
720–760 15 740
670–710 14 690
620–660 13 640
560–610 12 590
510–550 11 530
Table 2 Concordance between ACT Combined English/Writing Score and SAT Writing Score
SAT Writing (Score Range) ACT English/Writing Score SAT Writing (Single Score)
800 36 800
800 35 800
770–790 34 770
730–760 33 740
710–720 32 720
690–700 31 690
660–680 30 670
640–650 29 650
620–630 28 630
610 27 610
590–600 26 590
570–580 25 570
550–560 24 550
530–540 23 530
510–520 22 510
480–500 21 490
470 20 470
450–460 19 450
430–440 18 430
410–420 17 420
390–400 16 400
380 15 380
360–370 14 360
340–350 13 340
320–330 12 330
300–310 11 310