What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

Classroom test
The big test is coming for students…but which one will they choose?

As high schoolers across the land sharpen their pencils for the SAT or ACT, they still need to buckle down for one of the two college entrance exams. According to the Fair and Open Testing, the number of ACT takers have surpassed the number of SAT takers but most schools still require one of the test scores as a main criteria for college admissions.

Colin Gruenwald, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of SAT and ACT programs, explains, “Students have the opportunity to deliver the score that best represents them. At this point every university in the U.S. requests or accepts the SAT also requests or accepts the ACT. Some students do better on one test on the other.”

His advice to test takers? “Sit down, take your sample tests and figure out which one is definitely the best option for you.” Whether it’s through your library, guidance counselor’s office or taking free sample tests through Kaplan, do the prep work. “Then focus your attention on that test, take that test and submit that score.”

Kelly Montrym agrees. The associate director in the office of undergraduate admission at Boston College doesn’t have a preference with one test over the other when evaluating prospective students. She points out, “We’ll use whichever score is stronger for the student.”

In fact, she explains although students may feel like test scores reflect their intelligence, admissions professionals evaluate scores as overall readiness. “We view it as how prepared you are for college….That’s really what the test scores are used for in the review.”

Some may disagree. Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTEST: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, explains, “No doubt that a kid who scores a 1400 is going to be more ready than a kid who scores a 600 but the point is there’s better data predicts and that is the high school record. Researchers, include those for the testing companies, attest that high school grades – despite the differences of high schools – are a better measurement of high school.”

Many schools have adopted this mindset; 850 accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions have dropped the ACT/SAT admissions exam requirement. “From our perspective, neither test is necessary to do effective college admissions. Both tests are inferior to high school grades.”

As for the future of the tests, Schaeffer adds, “I don’t think either test is going to go away completely.”

Montrym, the president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling, seconds that notion. “If I was a betting woman, I would say the tests are here to stay….I mean way, way down the road, who knows.”

Comparing and contrasting the tests:

ACT SAT
Five sections: English, math, reading, science and a 30-minute optional writing test. Three sections: Critical reading, math and a 25-minute required writing test.
The maximum score for each section is 36. The maximum score for each section is 800.
Content areas tested in each section. Content areas break down into 10 sections.
Optional writing test is at the end. Required writing test  is at the beginning.
Testing time is 3 hours and 25 minutes (45 minutes each section). Testing time is 3 hours and 45 minutes (sections range from 10 – 25 minutes depending on the section).
No experimental section. Experimental section.
No wrong answer penalty. Wrong answer penalty.
Questions have consistent level of difficulty. Questions get more difficult as test progresses.


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