College entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT are challenging exams that assess students’ mastery of skills and attempt to predict their future success. Colleges and universities use SAT and ACT scores as data to compare all applicants for admissions. Of course, this data is not the only way colleges evaluate students for admission, but these tests are an important component.
Students who go through the rigorous high school admissions and testing process are already at an advantage when it comes to the college application process later on in high school. Students who prepare and sit for high school admissions exams often find that they already know much of the test-taking skills and starter material for these high stakes college entrance exams. The foundational skills built during the high school admissions preparation process are essential for students planning to sit for college admission exams like the ACT and SAT. The math and English language arts skills we build with your 7th grader will set them up for success in high school and beyond.
Let’s discuss these two exams section by section so you can start making plans for which college entrance exams your student should consider taking.
SAT and ACT Comparison At a Glance
Format and Timing of the SAT:
The SAT is one of the two exams colleges use to make admissions decisions and award merit-based scholarships. It’s is a (mostly) multiple-choice exam offered by the College Board, which also provides the AP courses your student will likely take in high school.
The SAT is a content-based exam which tests students in the following sections:
- Writing and Language
- Essay (Optional)
The SAT is a 3 hour exam if your student is not taking the essay. The time stretches to 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay portion. The SAT has a total of approximately 154 questions plus the optional essay. Your student should confirm with the college they wish to apply to if the essay portion is required or encouraged for consideration. Many colleges require the SAT scores with the essay.
Format and Timing of the ACT:
The ACT is the second of the two exams commonly used by colleges and universities to evaluate students for admission and merit-based scholarships. It is also a multiple-choice test. The ACT is a content-based exam that tests students in the following content areas:
- Essay (Optional)
The ACT is a 2 hour and 55 minute exam and stretches to 3 hours and 40 minutes if your student takes the optional essay portion. It has approximately 215 questions.
Comparing SAT Writing and Language with ACT English:
SAT Writing and Language:
The writing and language section of the SAT tests students’ understanding of basic grammar and more nuanced grammar. It is the second section on the test, compared with the first for the ACT. Students will encounter some of the following grammar concepts on the SAT:
- Subject-verb agreement
- Pronoun agreement
- Pronoun case (I vs. me, who vs. whom, etc.)
- Plural possessive nouns
- Possessive pronouns vs. contractions
- Dangling modifiers
- Double Negatives
The SAT also challenges students to know and understand the difference between vaguely similar words. For example: affect and effect, accept and except, complimentary and complementary, and more.
The skills in the SAT Writing and ACT Language are very similar to the skills necessary to do well on the HSPT Language section, although they have very different formats.
The SAT Writing and ACT English are very similar and excellent practice for the other.
The SAT Writing section allows 47 seconds per question to answer 44 questions in 35 minutes.
The English section on the ACT is the first section you will take, and it is a rapid-fire section where you have just 36 seconds to answer each question. The ACT English section consists of five reading passages, each one followed by multiple-choice questions.
The two main concept areas on the English section of the ACT are:
- Usage and Mechanics: Punctuation, usage, sentence structure, and grammar.
- Rhetorical skills: Knowledge of language, understanding the organization and style of the passages, elements of effective writing.
You see very similar concepts and material on both the ACT English section and the SAT writing and language sections.
The ACT English section allows 36 seconds per question to answer 45 questions in 75 minutes.
Comparing SAT Math with ACT Math:
The SAT has two math sections, one taken with a calculator and one taken without a calculator. The SAT gives your student several math formulas, including the area and circumference of circles, the volume of many shapes (which they rarely ask), and the Pythagorean theorem. The only formulas your student needs to memorize are for a slope of a line, and the equation for a circle.
The math sections of the SAT focus heavily on placing your student’s math skills into real-world concepts. The SAT math section asks students to demonstrate the math skills they will need for college level courses such as social science, math, and science courses. Students must also demonstrate the math skills required in daily life, including the math skills needed for various career choices.
The SAT Math section allows about 75 seconds per question for the no calculator and 86 seconds per question for the calculator sections. In total, there are 58 math questions in 80 minutes.
SAT Math concept areas:
- Algebra: Demonstrating mastering of linear equations
- Problem solving and data analysis: Demonstrating math fluency by solving problems quickly and reorganizing data accurately.
- Advanced math skills: These questions touch on geometry and trigonometry and advanced math skills required for college and career readiness.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT allows a calculator on every math question.
When you think about the ACT math section, it helps to break it down into two major concept categories:
- Basic essential skills: These are basic math concepts your student has learned before 8th grade. The ACT math section asks students to demonstrate their math fluency skills using rates, percentages, calculating area, surface area, and volume. Students will apply these essential math concepts in a variety of contexts on the ACT math section. This category makes up about 40% of the math questions on the ACT.
- Higher Math Skills: This category includes all of the major math concepts that students need to succeed in most entry-level college math courses. The higher math skills assessed on the math ACT include algebra, functions, geometry, and probability and statistics. The probability and statistics questions ask students to analyze data, calculate probabilities, understand relationships between variables. The higher math skills questions make up about 50% of the math questions on the ACT.
A third smaller concept category on the ACT addresses your student’s math modeling skills. These questions ask your student to demonstrate their ability to place their math skills into real-world concepts.
The ACT Math section allows 60 seconds per question to answer 60 questions in 60 minutes.
Comparing SAT Reading with ACT Reading:
Your student will encounter reading passages or pairs of reading passages on the SAT reading section. Reading passages may cover content areas such as:
- Social Sciences
- History and historical documents
- Natural Science
All of the vocabulary words assessed on the SAT are within the context of the reading passages. Students no longer see vocabulary words out of context on the SAT exam. Knowing Latin and Greek root words still helps in understanding the passage and the vocabulary question in context.
Under the SAT reading comprehension section, the questions often build upon one another. A student who struggles with a problem may find that they struggle on subsequent related questions. Other than this, questions are similar to what students have seen on the TACHS, HSPT, SHSAT, SSAT, ISEE, ACT, state tests, and any standardized test with a reading section.
Much of our SAT prep focuses on the structure of the questions and understanding what the SAT questions ask.
The SAT Reading section allows 75 seconds per question to answer 52 questions in 65 minutes.
The reading section on the ACT includes four separate sections of reading passages. Three sections include one long reading passage, and one section contains two shorter reading passages for comparison. Students are not asked to recall basic information from the text. Instead, students are asked to infer meaning, interpret details, evaluate cause and effect, and differentiate between fact and opinion.
The ACT reading section asks students to understand vocabulary words in the context of these reading passages. The reading passages often include pertinent background information about the author to give context for the text.
The ACT Reading section allows 52 seconds per question to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes.
Comparing SAT Science with ACT Science:
Is there Science on the SAT?
Unlike the ACT, there is no dedicated science section on the SAT exam. The SAT offers Subject Tests in specific sciences and AP in specific subjects. For example, see Comparison of SAT and AP Chemistry. The SAT Subject tests are on a completely different day than when your student will take the regular SAT. They take one hour each. We recommend that students 3 SAT Subject Tests for competitive colleges. More information about the Chemistry test prep. and our long-term math-science high school plan.
The science section on the ACT exam tests your student’s critical thinking skills rather than their direct science knowledge. Students’ experiences with labs and interpreting data in graphs and charts are helpful for taking the ACT Science section. The science section is a unique aspect of the ACT compared to the SAT.
The ACT Science section allows 52 seconds per question to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes.
Do the questions get more challenging as you go on the SAT?
The questions in each section increase in difficulty as you proceed through the exam. The math section increases in difficulty more so than the reading comprehension and the writing and language sections.
Do the questions get more challenging as you go on the ACT?
Questions on the ACT increase in difficulty during the math and science sections, but the difficulty is random in the English and reading passages. The last ten questions on the ACT math section are more difficult than any of the math questions your student will see on the SAT exam. The ACT exam gives students no formulas. Students must memorize almost 30 formulas for the ACT exam.
SAT Registration and Score Reporting
The SAT is scored out of a total of 1600 points. Scores are usually available within 2-4 weeks of taking the exam.
The SAT is offered seven times per year. Once in March or April, once in each May, June, August, October, November, and December. Your student should register for the SAT at least five weeks before the exam date.
ACT Registration and Score Reporting
The ACT is scored out of a total of 36. The ACT reports a composite score, which is the average of your student’s score on all ACT exam sections. Score reports are usually available within two weeks of taking the ACT.
The ACT is offered seven times per year: February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. Students should plan on registering for the ACT 5-6 weeks before the exam date.
Challenges on the SAT and ACT:
One of the biggest challenges to the SAT exam is misunderstanding the questions. During test prep, we dedicate time to breaking down sample questions to help your student become familiar with the types of questions they will encounter on the SAT.
Math concepts on the SAT are weighted much more heavily for scoring. The math SAT has 58 questions, which account for a total of 800 possible points. The reading and writing, and language sections both have a total of 96 questions that account for the other half of the possible points on the SAT.
The ACT requires much more strategy when answering questions with less time per question than the SAT. Students are encouraged to make educated guesses on the material they do not know, especially since there is no penalty for incorrect answers.
SAT vs ACT: Differences
Colleges and universities most often accept both exams, but your student should check with their colleges to confirm if there is a preference for one exam over the other.
When planning for both exams, you may want to take note of the order of the sections of both exams. The ACT starts with the fast paced English section followed by math, reading, science, and the essay. The SAT begins with reading, followed by English and writing, then no calculator math section, the calculator math section, ending with the essay.
The ACT requires more pacing than the SAT exam. The ACT has more questions with less time to answer. The English section is particularly challenging, with an average of 36 seconds per question.
The essay sections for both exams differ slightly. The SAT essay evaluates your student’s ability to comprehend a source, whereas the ACT essay requires more analysis and evaluation of complex topics.
The ACT also has a science section that is not on the SAT exam. The science section tests your student’s scientific reasoning more so than their direct science knowledge.
Difference in the Math Sections:
The SAT math section has a no calculator section, so strong mental math skills and not relying on a calculator is crucial. The no calculator math section is the most challenging section for most students and my personal favorite.
The SAT math section provides formulas for the students taking the exam. The ACT is different since the ACT does not provide formulas. Students must memorize around 30 formulas that they may need on the ACT math section.
The SAT has math questions that do not have multiple choice answers. Students must “fill in” the correct choice with no options given. These are very similar to the math fill ins on the SHSAT math section. In comparison, all questions on the ACT are multiple choice with no fill ins.
The SAT vs ACT: Similarities
The SAT and the ACT exams do have many similarities. The content your student needs to understand to succeed on both exams isn’t so far off that they can’t prepare for both exams simultaneously.
Where the SAT asks your student to comprehend and demonstrate an understanding of concepts, the ACT takes that same material and asks your student to analyze and evaluate that same information. The background knowledge required for both exams is much the same, but what your student is asked to DO with that information may differ. It’s still difficult to say one exam is harder or more challenging than the other. Much of that depends on your student and their test taking skills and abilities.
The differences between the two exams and what they ask your student to do with the materials are most prominent in the reading and essay sections. The ACT challenges your student to go a bit further in their analysis with similar material.
As for math, for both exams, your student must demonstrate a strong mastery of basic math skills, the same skills that we prepare for during high school admission prep. Once your student has a solid grasp of those basic math skills, they will build upon them to strengthen their advanced math skills such as the math needed to succeed in early college level math courses.
Since both exams have no penalty for wrong answers, educated guessing, and pacing yourself using test taking strategies will help your student strengthen their scores on both exams.
“Can you prepare for both the SAT and the ACT at the same time?”
Luckily for your high school student, much of the content on both of the exams is the same. Students can prepare for both exams simultaneously should they choose to sit for both exams.
The Bottom Line:
The rigorous test preparation your student endured during their high school admissions process is an excellent starting point for their success during the college admission process. We help students develop test-taking skills and strengthen their content knowledge for high school admissions and college admissions exams.
We group SAT and ACT students for tutoring based on their PSAT scores. If your student was with us for high school admissions prep, we might already have a good idea of which course of action is best for your student. Our SAT and ACT prep groups run year-round. Throughout the SAT or ACT exam preparation process, your student will take multiple practice exams to evaluate their progress.
Are you interested in ACT or SAT prep for your student?
If you have any questions or want to get started with a practice test, contact me for more information or join an SAT/ACT prep group. You can schedule an SAT lesson here. You can view availability for ACT or SAT groups and tutoring at Book Me. If you don’t see anything available, contact me. Students John Zaborskis tutored have earned over $7 million in scholarships since 2013 including $1.7 Million in scholarships 2020. Also, check out what parents and students have said about me.