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SAT v. ACT: The Basics

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Standardized tests can elicit a strong reaction from sophomores and juniors who are preparing to take the SAT or ACT this spring. The mere mention of these tests can induce panic in any high school student. While over 800 colleges and universities are now test optional, and the list grows every year, most students will opt to take one of these tests during their college admissions process.

There are different opinions and perceptions about which test is more highly regarded by admissions officers. However, every four-year college in the nation that accepts the SAT also accepts the ACT and reviews them equally. Students are able to choose the test with which they feel most comfortable based on their strengths and testing style. From an admissions standpoint, the ACT Plus Writing and SAT are interchangeable, but due to the many differences between the two, students generally favor one over the other.

Students are able to strategize to decide which test will optimize their academic profile. So, before you sign up for a test date and map out a study plan, it is beneficial to take a practice SAT and ACT exam to see which one is the best fit for you.

Here are some basics to help you determine which test you should take.


The SAT is a 3 hour and 45 minute exam, not including breaks, and is separated into 10 sections covering Critical Reading, Writing, and Math. The order of the sections is shuffled so not all math, reading, or writing sections are together. Some students prefer this method, as they do not tire of one subject too quickly. One of the 10 sections is an “experimental section.” This section is not scored and is used by the SAT to test new material, but students do not know which section is experimental when taking the exam. Additionally, each section typically lasts only 20-25 minutes, apart from one 10-minute writing section and one 35-minute essay section, so students with shorter attention spans may benefit from this structure.

What It Tests
The SAT exercises a student’s reasoning and critical thinking skills through questions that some students may find difficult to decipher. However, questions are usually asked in short phrases or a few sentences, which some students may prefer to long descriptions and wordy problems that can be found on the ACT. The math section of the SAT has a mix of multiple choice questions, grid-in questions, and written responses.

Other Tests
In addition to the SAT, some schools require applicants to submit additional SAT Subject Tests. SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same date as the SAT, with the exception of the March date when only the SAT is offered. Students can take either the SAT or up to three SAT Subject Tests on testing days, but not both. SAT Subject Tests cover 20 subjects including material in literature, U.S. and world history, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and many foreign languages.

Score, Points, and Difficulty
Each section of the SAT is worth a total of 800 points, for a total possible score of 2400. When a question is left blank, the student does not lose points, but does not receive credit either. Each incorrect answer deducts 1/4 of a point. Questions generally increase in difficulty by question type throughout a section. So, if question one relates to grammar, each subsequent question related to grammar throughout that individual section will be increasingly difficult. A benefit of taking the SAT is that it provides basic formulas for the math section, however, students must still learn to solve equations strategically, a craft best learned through practice tests and studying.

Test Times
The SAT is offered seven times throughout the year in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June at various locations across the U.S. For international test takers, the same dates apply with the exception of March. The SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same dates as the SAT, however, no SAT Subject Tests are offered in March, in the U.S. or internationally.


The ACT Plus Writing is a three and a half hour exam, not including breaks, and includes five sections on English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing. Some students may like the idea of working on one subject at a time and not having to revisit a subject once a section is complete. However, each section lasts from 30-60 minutes, which many students may find tiring without a break.

What It Tests
The ACT is considered to be more content-based and straightforward than the SAT. ACT questions are often lengthy, however, which some students may find tedious. The Science section does not test specific scientific facts (though that knowledge can’t hurt), but rather a student’s scientific reasoning or ability to assess the data and information provided. The Math section may be considered more difficult than that of the SAT for some test-takers, as it is entirely multiple choice and mostly equations.

Score, Points, and Difficulty
Each section of the exam is scored from 1-36, and an average of all these scores determines the composite score. Many students like the fact that points are not deducted for incorrect answers. However, some students may find it challenging that questions are in a completely random order, not according to level of difficulty. Additionally, the ACT does not provide formulas in the math section like the SAT.

Test Times
The ACT is offered six times a year in September, October, December, February, April, and June at locations throughout the United States and internationally. Test centers in U.S. and Canada, or around the world can be located on the ACT website.

While there are many similarities between the SAT and ACT, each test has unique factors that may benefit different types of students. Standardized tests can be daunting, but by setting goals and constructing a study schedule, students can reduce some of the stress associated with this part of college preparation.

Each individual should choose the test that he or she feels most comfortable with. Remember, test prep is a marathon, not a sprint; you wouldn’t wing it for a major history final, right? Make sure you prep early and consistently, and become familiar with the test by taking multiple practice exams!

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