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SAT or ACT: What's the Difference?


College admissions testing is an important part of the admissions process for many schools. It is the student's responsibility to determine which tests, if any, are required by the college of interest..

Two major independent agencies administer the testing. One of these is the College Board whose series of tests is called the Admissions Testing Program (ATP) and the other is the American College Testing Program. The test dates and registration materials and deadlines are available in the Counseling/Guidance office.

SAT I:  The Scholastic Aptitude Test is a three-hour multiple-choice examination measuring verbal and mathematical reasoning abilities. In New York State, the SAT I is given on seven different dates throughout the year. Most students take the SAT I once in the spring of their junior year and once in the fall of their senior year.

ACT:    The American College Test is given on 5 different test dates in New York State. The ACT test has four parts: a test of English usage, a test of Math usage, a reading test in Social Studies, and reading test in Natural Sciences. At times, the ACT can be substituted for SAT II subject area tests.

SAT II:  The SAT II Tests are one-hour tests in 15 different subjects. The maximum number of tests, which can be taken in one sitting, is 3. The tests are given on 5 different test dates throughout the year. Not all schools require SAT II tests, only the most competitive schools. Be sure to check the college catalog to determine whether or not you should take any SAT II tests. If SAT II tests are required, the college may be very specific about which ones they want to take. The best time to take these tests is at when subject material has been covered and is fresh in your mind.

SAT or ACT: What's the Difference?

While the ACT is generally considered a "content-based" test, and the SAT a test of "critical thinking and problem solving" skills, many questions on the ACT test critical thinking, and there is a predictable range of material that is tested on the SAT.

Here's a quick comparison of the skills students need for each test to help them choose the right test.

The Verbal Sections

A good vocabulary is definitely helpful on the SAT sentence completions and analogies. But equally important is a student's ability to use their reasoning skills on tough vocabulary. On the other hand, the ACT English section tests student's understanding of standard written English through a series of sentence- and paragraph-correction questions based on reading passages.

The SAT Critical Reading section tests critical thinking skills. Questions on passages revolve around interpreting the underlying points of words, phrases, or examples, and relating these details to the author's overall argument. However, the ACT reading questions often revolve around student's ability to locate details and facts, and making sure they picked out accurate information.

The Math Sections

The majority of the math material on the two exams is comparable.

SAT questions often combine several concepts, and part of the challenge is figuring out just what you're asked to do. ACT math questions require students to call on a particular concept or formula. Also, each SAT math section contains some key math facts and formulas. The ACT does not have this information.

Note: The ACT also has a Science Reasoning section; the SAT does not.
(adapted from Kaplan's SAT or ACT? Test Your Best).

Guessing Games: ACT vs. SAT

Should students guess on the ACT? YES!

ACT scores are based on the number of correct answers, only. This means that questions left blank and questions answered incorrectly simply don't count. Unlike some other standardized tests, the ACT has no wrong-answer (guessing) penalty. That's why students should always take a guess on every ACT question, even if the student doesn't have time to read it. Though the questions vary enormously in difficulty, harder questions are worth exactly the same as easier ones, so it pays to guess on the difficult questions and spend time breezing through the really easy ones, gathering points.

The SAT is not as straightforward.  However, if a student can eliminate one or more answers as definitely wrong he will turn the odds in his favor and definitely come out ahead by guessing. The test makers like to talk about the guessing penalty on the SAT. This is a misnomer, because it is really a wrong-answer penalty, and the points lost for wrong answers are fractional. Correct answers score a full point. If you guess wrong, you get penalized, but if you guess right, you score points.

The bottom line is that if a student can eliminate one or more answers as definitely incorrect- he should guess.

(Adapted from Kaplan's SAT or ACT: Test Your Best and Kaplan's ACT Essential Review)

It is important to note that most colleges want the test results sent directly from the testing agencies. Students should be sure to indicate on the registration form, the codes of the colleges to receive their scores. There is no charge for reporting scores to four schools, if it is requested at the time of registration. If scores are requested at a later date, there is a reporting fee.  We caution you that there may be colleges that no longer except “rushed” scores.