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ACT vs. SAT - Let us count the ways

Leona Kim

For students eyeing college, the ACT vs. SAT dilemma looms large. Uncover key differences in content, format, and timing to make an informed decision. Whether it's navigating complex vocabulary or deciphering scientific data, learn how to play to your strengths and ace your college entrance exam.

A persistent question that faces students as they are beginning to plan their lives after high school, especially if they are planning to go to college, is which college entrance exam to take: the ACT or the SAT? 

According to the Princeton Review, the scores from both tests are crucial for college-based admissions and merit-based scholarships. All colleges and universities accept both the ACT and the SAT; students do not have to take both tests. 

Differences exist between the two tests in duration and types of academic challenges; the SAT has a slower pace and has a stronger focus on reading and language skills, whereas the ACT requires test takers to focus on its mostly math and science at a faster pace.

The critical reading portion of the SAT contains complex vocabulary that requires more context clues, however, its passages are numbered so students can go straight back to a passage when a passage number is asked. The ACT reading sections contain simpler vocabulary, but its passages are not numbered and are much longer which requires students to skim in order to answer questions. 

The SAT passage types are literature, history, or social studies. On the other hand, the ACT passage types are Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, Social Sciences, Humanities, or Natural Sciences. In addition, the SAT has 52 questions with a time limit of 65 minutes, while the ACT has 40 questions in 35 minutes. 

The writing section of the SAT requires students to fix sentences involving parallel structures, modifiers, and subject-verb agreements; the ACT English focuses on punctuation, redundancy, and preposition. The SAT has 4 passages and 44 questions in 35 minutes, however, the ACT has 5 passages and 75 questions in 45 minutes. 

The SAT Math section requires students to take more time to work with problems and derive equations from the abundance of information in real-world problems, on the other hand, the ACT requires students to answer questions with high agility and caution. 

The SAT Math without calculators has 20 questions in 25 minutes, while the SAT Math with calculators has 38 questions in 55 minutes. In contrast, the ACT Math allows calculators for all of its 60 questions under a time limit of 60 minutes. 

The ACT Science format is similar to its reading section. Students should only focus on data interpretation, analyze differing opinions, and the main idea of the scientific method; scientific knowledge is not needed in the ACT. This section consists of 40 questions within 35 minutes. 

Lastly, the SAT essay portion requires students to remain neutral and analyze how a certain author builds his or her argument using examples, reasoning to develop ideas, and describe persuasive elements such as an appeal to logos, pathos, or ethos with a time limit 50 minutes. In contrast, the ACT essay portion requires students to “write a unified, coherent essay,” meaning students must write an informative essay while analyzing three perspectives within 45 minutes.

Neither test is superior nor easier than the other. Students must figure out their skills and weaknesses in order to determine which test has the most advantage.

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