What’s The Difference Between ACT vs. SAT: An Expert Offers His Opinion

Difference Between ACT vs. SATAlthough the differences between the ACT and the SAT are subtle, these nuances can be just large enough to dictate whether your student does very well or not so well on their college exams. Trying out each one to determine which test style matches best with your child’s test-taking personality is an important decision-making factor. So says Jonathan Arak, tutor at Noodle Pros, with almost thirty years’ of tutoring experience. Jonathan joined us recently for a Facebook Live and gave us the lay of the land, so to speak, of each of the tests.


Here’s a summary of the discussion…


What are the differences/similarities?

Neither test penalizes the student for guessing on an answer. The SAT has undergone many changes throughout the years, with the most recent ones being in 2016. The past types of changes were, what Jonathan described as “merely rearranging the deck chairs on the ‘SAT Titanic,’” meaning, not that severe. This time, they not only “rearranged the deck chairs of the ‘SAT Titanic,’ but they brought over more chairs from the ‘ACT Titanic,’” meaning, the newest SAT changes were a little more noticeable and put them more into alignment with the ACT.


The SAT has two scores: Math and Verbal, and within the Verbal there are two sections: Reading Comprehension and Writing (Grammar). The Grammar section, like that of the ACT, appears to be closer to a Reading Comprehension, section on the surface, however, Grammar is mixed in with in the reading passages.


Strategy Tip: Because many of the questions on the SAT are line/reference questions, some students taking the test, with “some” being the operative word, can get through without reading the entire question. This technique, when handled properly, can afford the student more time in the long run. The ACT does not have questions of this sort, so this strategy would not work on that test.


A major difference between the two tests is that there are two Math sections on the SAT and one Math and one Science section on the ACT. Students who are truly Science-phobic may find this to be a problem, however, Jonathan points out that out of the 40 Science questions, only four are actually ones where you need to bring a knowledge of science in from the outside. In essence, the remaining questions are science-related, but closer, again, to Reading Comprehension.


The Math on the ACT tends to be a a little more difficult (there is some pre-calc), but all in all, the questions are more straightforward, while the wording of the questions on the SAT tends to be a bit trickier.


Helpful Tip: If you average the number of questions on the tests in the time that is allotted, students make out better on the SAT, as more time is given per question. On the ACT, the student is given less that one minute per question, so it would make sense that students who need more time may prefer the SAT.



How does one decide which test to choose?

If there’s any uncertainty surrounding which test your student will shine brighter on, have him or her take the PSAT in October of 10th grade, and the ACT at the end of that year. The PSAT is a more accurate indicator of the SAT, and it is not necessary to take any prep classes prior to taking the PSAT.

It is good to keep in mind that all students are different; what works for some may not work for others, but there are always outliers. In Jonathan’s opinion, students who are more linear and not as creative tend to do better on the ACT, and those who are more intuitive and can handle “curveballs” fare better on the SAT.



When is the optimal time to take these tests?

Because high school Juniors often have more and more going on as the school year progresses, Jonathan recommends, depending upon the school and level of the Math track, prepping during the summer between 10th and 11th grade, and taking the test in the fall of 11th grade to get it out of the way. Generally, once a student has taken Algebra 2, he or she will be in a good position to take the test in the fall.



Can you take the ACT if you’ve only prepped for the SAT?

Jonathan says it is possible. You will be 70-80% prepared for the ACT, however, your student will still need to prep for the Science portion of the test.



Subject Tests and Parting Shots

The popularity of SAT Subject Tests has dwindled down to 10 schools requiring them from a one-time high of as many as 200. Many schools might “recommend” a student take them, however, elite Science and Math students should, regardless, as that will be one more data point from which colleges can make their assessments.


Since the 2016 changes in the SAT, the “finish line” has been moved, and “Top Tier Schools” now base their acceptances on higher scores. That is, when a score of 1400 was once needed to get into a Top Tier School, that same school now requires between 1480-1500. (Thirty-one on the ACT is roughly equivalent to a 1400 on the SAT.)


It makes sense for students to aim for the highest test scores possible, however, the transcript is still the main component of a college application, and that will determine primarily the range of colleges they can look at. Jonathan explains that a B+ student with a 1600 SAT score will still, generally, not open themselves up to a Top Tier School. And a B student who scores a 1400 “right out of the gate,” will seldom advance to a higher tier by taking the test again and raising their score. Keep things in perspective.


Students requiring accommodations when taking the tests may find it slightly easier on average to get extended time for the SAT. Jonathan suggests asking for “double time,” and hoping to get at least half of that.








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