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While the SAT and ACT are very different tests, they both fulfill the same role in the admissions process. The SAT and ACT are designed to provide college admissions officers with two things: a predictor of first-year academic achievement in college, and a common yardstick to use in comparing students from a wide range of educational backgrounds.

The ACT was traditionally required by colleges in the mid-west, and the SAT was the test of choice in the northeast and on the east and west coasts. But now an increasing number of students are taking the ACT, and the majority of schools in the United States now accept both SAT or ACT test results. Here are some of the factors that make the SAT and ACT very different breeds:

  • The ACT includes a science reasoning test; the SAT does not.

  • The ACT math section includes trigonometry; the SAT math does not.

  • The SAT tests vocabulary much more than the ACT.

  • The SAT is not entirely multiple choices.

  • The SAT has a guessing penalty; the ACT does not.

  • The ACT tests English grammar; the SAT does not.

  • The SAT has an experimental section; the ACT does not have any.
Admissions officers and educators often describe the difference between SAT and ACT in these terms: the ACT is a content-based test, where-as the SAT tests critical thinking and problem solving. In fact, this contrast isn't exactly watertight. Many questions on the ACT test critical thinking, and there is a predictable range of material that's tested on the SAT. But the SAT and ACT reward different attributes, so performing well on each test can all boil down to what kind of test taker you are.

Depending on your particular strengths and weaknesses, you may perform much better on one test than the other. As a result, many students embarking on the admissions process are now considering both the SAT and ACT - to figure out which test provides a better showcase for their abilities.

Preferred by? Private schools; schools on the east and west coasts Public schools; schools in the middle of the country; more colleges than prefer the SAT
How Questions Appear Order of difficulty No order of difficulty
Score Choice? No Yes
Highest Math Level Algebra/Basic Geometry; test booklet supplies all formulas Trigonometry (only 4 questions); test booklet rarely provides formulas
Skills Heavily Tested Vocabulary and Reading; Math Grammar and Reading; Math
Penalty For Wrong Answers? Yes No
Based on School Curriculum? Less More
Style of Test Tricky, with many distracters More straightforward, with fewer distracters
Structure of Test Verbal: two 30-min. sections,  one 15-min. section
Math: two-30 min. sections, one 15-min. section
Experimental: one 30-min. Verbal or Math section; looks like any other section
English: one 45-min. section
Math: one 60-min. section
Reading: one 35-min. section 
Science Reasoning: one 35-min. section
Experimental: added to tests on certain dates; clearly added on
When it's Offered Seven times per year:
Late January
Late March or early April
Early May
Early June
Mid October
Early November
Early December
Six times per year:
September (in 13 states only)
Scoring 200-800 for Math and for Verbal, added together for a composite score; median about 1000 1-36 for each subject, averaged together for a composite score; median about 21
When You Should Register At least six weeks before the test date At least four weeks before the test date
For More Information Educational Testing Service (ETS) 
(609) 771-7600
The College Board 
(319) 337-1000