4 Key Differences Between the SAT & ACT Exams


Several families I work with have recently asked me to clarify the key differences between the SAT and ACT exams. Do colleges prefer one over the other? Do both tests require students to write essays? Does the ACT  really benefit math/science-oriented students because it includes an additional Science section? Both tests are approximately the same length, include written components, and are regarded as equal by most universities, but as far as I’m concerned that is where many of the similarities end.

While the prevailing sentiment engendered by most guidance counselors is that the differences between the two tests are quite minimal, I have had an altogether different experience. One student I worked with recently, for instance, had trouble scoring above an 1800 on the SAT. Yet, her score on the ACT test was a 29.5 (equivalent to a 2050 on the SAT). Conventional wisdom would suggest that this student had a greater aptitude for Math and Science, but she had only ever taken two AP classes in high school: AP English and AP History. I’ve prepared students for each exam and have truthfully found them to be markedly different. Here are a few key differences that I hope will help you make an informed decision when it comes time to choose which test is right for you.

1) Time-Management: The format of the SAT and ACT could not be more different. The SAT features 10 “shorter” sections and asks students to frequently revisit sections at random. For instance, a student may be asked to answer Math questions on sections 2, 5, and 10. The ACT, on the other hand, features four “longer” sections, each of which focuses exclusively on a single subject. Ultimately, I find that the SAT benefits more versatile test-takers who don’t struggle with time-management issues and who can effortlessly switch gears between subjects. For students who utilize different test-taking strategies depending on the subject, I would suggest the ACT exam because it allows you to more easily focus your attention on a specific subject.

2) The ACT Does Not Test on Vocabulary: I hesitate to say that the ACT offers an “easier” English section, but the truth of the matter is that its questions are more straightforward and generally result in higher scores with the students I work with. I believe that the reason for this is twofold. First, the ACT does not ask vocabulary questions of any kind. The SAT will usually ask 15-18 vocabulary related questions. Second, the SAT asks many more inference-based questions that test the ability of students to detect and discern the subtle nuances of a passage. The ACT asks far fewer sub-textual questions, instead opting to test students on function and form.

3) The ACT’s Science Section is Not as Hard as One Might Think: Most students are intimidated by the ACT because it features an additional Science section that the SAT does not, but you don’t have to be a science wizard to perform well on this section. The Science component of the ACT generally asks students to interpret various data sets (i.e. charts, graphs…etc.). The truth of the matter is that the ACT Science section seldom tests students on topics that would require more formal scientific training. I usually find that students exceed their performance expectations on this section after only a few practice tests. The existence of this section should not deter any student from considering taking the ACT exam.

4) The ACT Math Section is Challenging: I can not emphasize this point enough. The ACT Math section offers consistently more challenging questions, including Log functions, Sine/CoSine/Tangent trigonometric functions…etc. The SAT does not generally test students to this degree. While you do not need to be an AP Math student to perform well on this test, it is essential that a student taking the ACT know basic trigonometry and pre-Calculus formulas to receive a strong score on this section. In general, I notice that non-AP math students I work with score approximately 100 points better on the SAT math section.

I hope this is a helpful breakdown of the Pros and Cons of both tests!

The Best Way to Teach

Benedict Carey’s recent New York Times article, “Studying for the Test by Taking It,” correctly asserts that students perform better when they are quizzed more frequently and pools together several rather conclusive studies to support this claim. Yet, many high school teachers and college professors adhere to a traditional grading model in which the majority (if not all) of a student’s grade is based on a final exam. I’ve often wondered why teachers have steadfastly supported this grading schedule. Is it because it is easier for teachers to calculate grades? Do teachers want to give students the most time possible to absorb the material?

Whatever the reason may be, delaying assessments to the end of a course is now being acknowledged as a rather inefficient and unproductive way for students to learn subject matter. That is why I applaud two University of Texas psychology professors, James W. Pennebaker and Samuel D. Gosling, for recently deciding to forego a final exam in their class of 900 students for a more rigorous daily quiz schedule. They found that, though this new schedule required a lot more work on their part, their intro psychology class performed significantly better than other psych classes that used a final exam. I urge teachers to follow this model and structure the courses around a frequent quiz schedule. I think the students just may thank them for it in the long run.

Three Important (& Necessary) Changes to the SAT Exam

As educators and parents of prospective test-takers may have heard by this point, the College Board is implementing sweeping adjustments to the SAT exam beginning in the fall of 2016. Here are three changes that I am particularly excited about and feel are long overdue!

1) The Essay Component is Now Optional
While I believe that a student’s ability to write a clear and cogent essay is arguably one of the most important metrics by which a college can gauge the success of a prospective student, I’ve always felt that the current SAT format does not represent an accurate indicator of such a skill. The SAT’s essay component does not reward writers who prefer to take a few extra minutes to thoughtfully craft a response. Instead, it asks test-takers to write a hurried 3-page essay to a previously unknown prompt in a scant 25 minutes. There are many deft writers who cannot compose responses under these highly pressurized conditions, which is why I believe that it is only fair that this portion of the test become optional.

2) Removing the Penalty for Incorrect Answers
Students will no longer be penalized for answering a question incorrectly. The current SAT scoring system discourages students from taking educated guesses in fear that an incorrect response will result in a rather harsh quarter point penalty. Some students are able to accurately eliminate three of a possible five answers choices on a particular question before selecting an incorrect answer. Yet, the current guidelines seemingly do not distinguish this student from one who is blindly guessing among any of a possible five answer choices. In my estimation, the new scoring guidelines will surely reward students who are able to make more educated and accurate guesses.

3) The Elimination of “Rarefied” Vocabulary
The College Board has pledged to rid the test of antiquated and esoteric vocabulary in favor of more commonly used words. The ACT did away with this unnecessary exercise long ago, yet the SAT clung to the belief that a rich vocabulary was paramount to future success. It is important to have a rich vocabulary, but young students have the rest of their lives to improve their language skills.

Don’t Be Discouraged by Falling College Acceptance Rates

I was very happy to encounter a recent New York Times article by Kevin Carey, entitled “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems.”  The piece exposed the many statistical tricks that schools, such as Stanford and Harvard, use to justify their sub-6% acceptance rates. Carey contends that Ivy League acceptance rates should be viewed as significantly higher for “well-qualified applicants,” but that such statistics serve to deter many qualified students from even applying to these schools.

While these numbers surely bolster the reputation and prestige of elite institutions of higher learning, I find that there are often far more damaging consequences to such statistics that these universities may not even be aware of.  Working with hundreds of students as both a high school teacher and tutor, I have encountered a disturbing trend among freshmen, sophomores and juniors. It is my belief that many of the students I have worked with are capable of gaining acceptance to Ivy league schools, but become so deflated once they hear of these statistics that they just assume not even try.  It is important for young people to become motivated, to set goals for themselves, and to believe that they can accomplish great feats with a bit of grit and determination. The reality of the situation is that not every child will be able to attend an Ivy league institution, but every student should feel compelled to try.

I’m thankful that Kevin Carey shed light on the dubious nature of college acceptance rates and hope that it instills a belief in young students that an elite education is attainable!