Jed Applerouth, PhD
August 26, 2008
min read
Graphic of a notepad and pencil.

As summer comes to a close and the collegiate admission process beckons, many parents and students must make the important decision whether to use the next few months to prepare for the SAT, the ACT or to simultaneously prepare for both tests. Extremely familiar with the SAT, the majority of parents who seek out our services assume that the SAT will be the best assessment for their children. Most parents personally endured the rite of sitting for the SAT during high school. Additionally, they know how their children fared on the 7th grade TIP assessment, and the 10th and 11th grade PSAT assessments. But for many, the ACT remains a mystery. A growing number of Atlanta students sit for the "pre-ACT", the PLAN assessment in 10th grade: the vast majority of our students have no academic exposure to the ACT. Many parents have heard of the ACT as an alternative to the SAT but don't know if it's worthwhile to make the investment into ACT preparation or simply stick it out with the SAT. In this article I will explain the topical and structural differences between these two assessments in hopes of better informing this decision.

Let me begin with a quick table highlighting the major differences between the two assessments:

Table 1: Basic Differences
Duration 3:45 2:55
Structure 10 sections 4 sections
  • Critical Reading
  • Math
  • Writing (grammar + essay)
  • Reading
  • Math
  • English (i.e. grammar)
  • Science Reasoning
Scoring Add total number correct and subtract a percentage for missed answers. It's good to skip really hard questions. Add total number correct - no penalty for wrong answers. Answer every question.
Scale 200-800 per section, 500 is roughly median score 1-36 per section, 19-20 is roughly median score
Sending scores to colleges While in the past, ETS sent every SAT score simultaneously, a new policy beginning in March 2009 will allow students to pick and choose the scores sent to colleges. "Score Choice" option allows students to pick which scores they send/withhold
Cost $41.50 for standard administration $29.00 for standard administration
When to Register 6 weeks prior to test date 4 weeks prior to test date
How to Register Register for the SAT Register for the ACT

For the history buffs, here is a brief historical overview of the two assessments.

The SAT, born in 1926, was a child of the IQ test and was designed to test innate ability or aptitude. The ACT, born in 1959, was a child of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and was designed to test scholastic achievement. The founders of the SAT (Harvey Chauncey et al.) planted roots in Princeton, NJ and Berkeley, CA and moved towards the middle of the country. The ACT founders (E.F. Linquist et al.) planted roots in Iowa and spread outward to the coasts. The College Board (SAT folks) and ACT Inc. duked it out school by school to achieve dominion, and now, as a result of their aggressive campaigns, both assessments are nearly universally accepted. Last year some 1.4 million students sat for the SAT while 1.2 million sat for the ACT. For an in depth analysis of the history of these assessments, please see my January "Jed Said" article.

Initially these tests looked drastically different, but over the last 14 years, the College Board has made many changes which have brought the SAT closer and closer to its younger sibling, the ACT. Little by little the College Board has stripped the SAT of many of the more abstract elements from its composition and added more "achievement" type sections. When the College Board added an essay to the SAT in 2005, ACT Inc. was quick to respond in kind. From the outside, these two assessments are approaching a point of convergence, but when you dig beneath the surface, you find that each assessment emphasizes certain skills and downplays others. To determine which assessment is right for a particular individual, one must compare his/her particular skill set to the skills emphasized by the two assessments.

What kind of skills are required to succeed on each assessment?

Table 2: Breakdown of Required Skills
Vocabulary Greater Emphasis  
Abstraction Greater Emphasis  
Math Content
  • Geometry
  • Algebra I
  • Algebra II (advanced functions and graphs)
  • Geometry
  • Algebra I
  • Trigonometry
Math Style More tricks; unique language Simple, straightforward, more academic
Reading Comprehension
  • Abstract
  • Analogous thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Vocabulary questions
  • How might the author respond?
  • Straightforward
  • More content based
  • What did I read?
  • What happened to the character?
Grammar Will count for few students. The essay is lumped in with the grammar for your writing score. Grammar counts for all students. The essay is optional.
Science No Graph and Table analysis
Speed   Greater Emphasis
Mental Endurance Greater Emphasis  

Let's look more closely at each required skill.

Vocabulary Skills

The original SAT was deeply rooted in IQ testing and the concept of testing innate aptitude. The founders of the test believed that vocabulary was a major factor in determining IQ and aptitude, so the early SAT was chock full of arcane idioms. In addition to the reading comprehension passages, the Verbal SAT test had 3 vocabulary- intensive sections: sentence completions, analogies, and antonyms. In 1994 the antonyms were removed. In 2005 the analogies were dropped. Today the Critical Reading section (new name for Verbal) consists of 19 Sentence Completions and 48 Reading Comprehension questions. Vocabulary is paramount for the Sentence Completions, and, more than ever, difficult vocabulary is finding its way into the Reading Comprehension passages. Additionally, use of advanced vocabulary is greatly rewarded on the essay, and it appears to be essential for students wanting perfect essay scores. The ACT founders, on the other hand, did not feel that vocabulary was a strong indicator of academic achievement, so vocabulary skills have never been essential to success on the ACT. For students with powerful vocabularies, the SAT gives you an advantage. For students with weaker vocabularies, the ACT may be more attractive.

For students with powerful vocabularies, the SAT gives you an advantage. For students with weaker vocabularies, the ACT may be more attractive.

Abstract Reasoning Skills

The SAT has always put a much higher value on abstract reasoning than has the ACT. Though the College Board dropped the analogies, I have noticed many analogies creeping their way back into the most recent Reading Comprehension passages. Students must be able to draw abstract parallels between unconnected events. Additionally, students must be able to anticipate how an author might respond to a situation or position and/or consider what information, if available, would invalidate an author's position. The ACT goes nowhere near these kinds of abstract questions.

Students who can think in a more abstract manner will be rewarded on the SAT. Students who are more straightforward and stick to the context and the words in front of them will fare better on the ACT.

In Context Or In Isolation

Continuing the theme of the SAT's preference for abstraction, the SAT tests most concepts in isolation, whereas the ACT prefers to test concepts in context. The SAT isolates sentences in sentence completions and isolates grammar into single sentence units. The ACT, in contrast, tests everything through the form of brief vignettes. The ACT tests grammar in 15-question vignettes; it tests science in 4-7-question vignettes; and it tests reading comprehension in 10-question vignettes.

Students able to see concepts better in context may do better on the ACT.

Reading Comprehension Skills

Simply put, reading comprehension on the SAT is more difficult than on the ACT. ACT reading comprehension is much more direct and straightforward; less abstract thinking and fewer vocabulary skills are required.

If the SAT reading comprehension has got you down- try the ACT. It may be a refreshing change.

Math Skills

The math on the SAT has always been its own strange beast, unique unto itself with a language and symbols that have no equivalent in the academic world. In 2005, the College Board dropped the 15 highly abstract Quantitative Comparisons, which had no parallel in academics. However, the College Board continues to test mathematical concepts by asking non-traditional questions on the SAT. Students taking this test are asked about abstract functions, confusing algebraic problems, unusual remainder questions, and counting/logic problems that are typically not tested in the classroom. The founders of the ACT desired that their math gauge classroom achievement, so ACT math has always closely replicated math found in high school text books. The ACT tests math through Trigonometry- but only 4 of the 60 math problems are Trig, and two of these are always just basic sine, cosine and tangent definitions. In a nutshell: ACT math is much more straightforward and generally easier with the exception of the 2 advanced Trig questions. However, the SAT math, with all it's nuances and strange problem types, is generally more "coachable." Once people learn the language and tricks of the SAT, they can use strategies to work around hard problems and achieve greater score increases. Teaching ACT math generally involves teaching straight math with very few tricks.

Students struggling with the strangeness of the SAT math may feel more at home with the more familiar and straightforward ACT math. However, for an average/lower-level math student looking for a quick hit on math, it is easier to learn a few SAT tricks and get a score boost than to go back and learn all the remedial math required to succeed on the ACT.

Grammar Skills

Students who are strong grammarians will always be rewarded by the ACT; students who are strong grammarians will only be rewarded on the SAT if they are applying to the most selective colleges. On the ACT, grammar (aka the English section) counts for 1/4 of the composite score. For decades, the English section has received the same weight as the other 3 ACT sections, and colleges have always counted it fully. The College Board only recently added grammar skills to the SAT by incorporating the old SAT 2 Writing test into the new SAT I. Colleges that have historically demanded the SAT 2s (a minority of highly selective private schools) will factor the Writing score into their admissions algorithms. However, the vast majority of colleges are refraining from using the Writing scores for admissions purposes until they have collected more data from the upcoming class of students who sat for new SAT. The jury is still out whether the preponderance of schools will embrace the Writing section.

Strong Grammarians - the ACT will reward you, and your prowess will count towards your ACT score and towards college admissions. The SAT, on the other hand, will reward you only if you are applying to the most selective schools. For the majority of students, the SAT Writing score will have little to no bearing on admissions decisions.

Essay Writing Skills

The opening section of the SAT is always the Essay, which accounts for roughly 1/3 of the Writing score. It is required. The ACT does not require the essay. On the ACT, the essay is placed as an optional 5th section. While neither test's essay will impact most admissions decisions, schools want to see an ACT writing sample from at least one administration of the ACT if ACT scores are submitted for admission consideration. Even if the student submits the SAT (which includes the writing section) along with ACT scores, at least one ACT score report must include the essay section.

As schools update their admission policies, students must include the essay score for SAT and ACT reports submitted to colleges.

Science Skills

Neither the SAT nor the ACT truly tests science. The ACT has a "science" section, but it requires no scientific knowledge. What it does test is the ability to quickly read paragraphs, charts, and graphs in order to pull out trends and patterns. Essentially, it tests mathematical analysis, reading comprehension, and speed. A student who is not a rock star in science at school but who works quickly may be able to do quite well on the ACT science section. At the same time, a student who is strong in science at school but has poor time management skills may find that he or she is unable to perform well on the ACT science test.

The keys to the ACT science section are the abilities to read and see graphic trends quickly and to stay focused for 35 intense minutes. Even if a student received Bs in bio, chem, and physics, he or she may be able to rock the ACT science section if he/she works quickly enough.


In the world of academic assessment, tests are characterized as "speed" tests or "power" tests. Speed tests gauge processing speed: a student who reads and processes quickly will generally achieve a high score. Power tests are designed in such a fashion that even if given all the time in the world, very few students would be able to answer all of the questions correctly. Both assessments have speed and power elements, but the ACT is clearly more of a speed test, and the SAT is more of a power test. (This may be why ACT Inc. is so reluctant to allow students to have extra time.)

On the SAT's Critical Reading test, the majority of students, even with unlimited time, would be unable to answer the hardest Sentence Completions without a dictionary at their side. They could re-read the "level 5" Reading Comprehension questions, the abstract, even convoluted questions, and never come up with the correct answer. If given unlimited time on the ACT Reading, most students would eventually be able to re-read the passage and find all the answers. This is also the case with the Science Section.

The ACT is all about time management. Students who have timing difficulties on the SAT will experience them, and often to a greater degree, on the ACT. When tutoring the ACT, I always conduct comprehensive timing drills, especially on the Science and Reading sections. On the Science section, I must demonstrate to students how to quickly navigate between graphs and charts, find correlations and relationships, and answer the questions at a rapid rate. I tell my students that the clock will either be your ally or your nemesis on the ACT.

If you prep for the ACT, you must practice your timing! Take timed sections. Better yet, take a timed test!

Mental Endurance

The SAT requires a greater degree of mental endurance than does the ACT. The SAT has 10 sections including the 25-minute essay and a 25-minute experimental section that does not count towards the score but instead helps test creators determine which questions to use on future tests. The SAT test is 3 hours and 45 minutes long, and with breaks and paperwork, the administration of the test generally runs from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM. I have taken this test several times, and by the end I am mentally spent. Many academics are clamoring for a reduction in length of the SAT, but for now, this test places great demands on students. The ACT is shorter. The essay is optional, and it comes at the end of the test. The total time for the ACT is 2 hours, 55 minutes.

Students who experience mental burnout or have attentional issues may fare better on the ACT.


Testing Accommodation is extremely hard to get for the ACT, but it can be done. The ACT administrators like to see 12 months of documentation of a student's disability. This is much more stringent than the requirements for receiving accommodation on the SAT. The ACT administrators also use a different model of disability from their counterparts at the College Board. ACT Inc. uses the "every man" model to determine eligibility for accommodation. This model compares a student to the norm, as opposed to comparing a student to his/her potential (the College Board's method). Please see the April "Jed Said" to learn more or click the following link to read about the ACT's disability policy:

High Level Recommendations

In an ideal world, a student would sit for both an ACT assessment and an SAT assessment, and then prep for the test which better matches his or her skill set. Only a few Atlanta schools mandate the 10th grade PLAN assessment (the pre-ACT), but all schools require the PSAT. Parents often send me their child's PSAT scores and ask me to make recommendations from those alone.

If a student has performed well on the PSAT, I advise students to prep for the SAT and see if gains can be achieved. In the event that meaningful gains on the SAT fail to materialize over time (often by the end of the junior year) I advise students to sit for a mock ACT to determine if the ACT may be a better assessment.

If a student has only mediocre PSAT results, I advise the student to take a mock ACT early junior year to see if that test may be a better fit.  Some students see the ACT and feel totally at home. If a student achieves an ACT score that is significantly higher than his/her PSAT score, I advise the student to prep for the ACT from the beginning. If the scores are even or if the PSAT is higher, I advise the student to prep for the more "coachable" SAT.

The majority of students are still SAT-focused and invest their energies into the SAT. If they eventually want to try the ACT, they will find that most of the content they have learned will transfer to the ACT.

It is a good idea for a student to invest 3 hours and take a real ACT or a mock ACT. The mocks are just for practice and personal information, while the real ACT scores are for keeps and sent to schools only by choice. There is zero risk. Taking a mock or an actual ACT can save an individual a lot of stress and frustration down the road.

We advise students to check with colleges they're interested in to see how the SAT and ACT section scores are evaluated for admission applications.

If a student is even on the SAT and the ACT, I will always focus on the SAT.

The SAT, by its design, is and always will be a more coachable test. I have never seen the kind of dramatic gains on the ACT that I have seen on the SAT. There is not a "lightbulb" that goes off when a student finally understands the ACT. This happens all the time on the SAT. Students finally understand how to interpret the critical reading questions on the SAT. They finally get the bizarre math functions. With the ACT what happens is that a student simply becomes familiar with all the sections and learns how to manage the timing. I have seen students go up 3,4, 5, and 6 points on the ACT, but never the tremendous jumps of 300-400+ points that occur on the SAT. The one ACT section that does yield dramatic jumps is science. Some students are completely unprepared for the speed and quick decisions that section requires. After some preparation, many students find that they do remarkably better on the science section than they did initially.

Switching between the SAT and ACT

Fortunately the tests overlap some 75% in content, so prepping for one will invariably help you on the other. Any grammar you learn will hit both tests. Most of the math will also be applicable to both tests. Reading comprehension, too. Even the Science section is mostly reading comp and math. This being said, if a student wants to switch from one test to another she must familiarize herself with the assessment in question. Buy a book or take a mock, but don't go in cold. A few hours looking over a test can make a big difference.

In the end, I like the SAT and, as a provider of test-prep services, prefer it to the ACT. However, I have seen hard-working students, stuck on the SAT, gain acceptance into the college of their choice only from the gains they achieved on the ACT. I know that the ACT can be a life saver for many students. And I'm glad there are two assessments for this reason alone.

Table 3: SAT/ACT Score Comparison
SAT Composite Score* ACT Composite Score
1600 36
1560-1590 35
1510-1550 34
1460-1500 33
1410-1450 32
1360-1400 31
1320-1350 30
1280-1310 29
1240-1270 28
1210-1230 27
1170-1200 26
1130-1160 25
1090-1120 24
1060-1080 23
1020-1050 22
980-1010 21
940-970 20
900-930 19
860-890 18
810-850 17
760-800 16
710-750 15
660-700 14
590-650 13
520-580 12
500-510 11

*Prior to Writing Test Addition

Table 4: ACT Test Dates
Test Date Registration Deadline (Late Fee Required)
September 13, 2008 August 12, 2008 August 13-22, 2008
October 25, 2008 September 19, 2008 September 20-October 3, 2008
December 13, 2008 November 7, 2008 November 8-20, 2008
February 7, 2009 January 6, 2009 January 7-16, 2009
April 4, 2009 February 27, 2009 February 28- March 13, 2009
June 13, 2009 May 8, 2009 May 9-22, 2009

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