The SAT and the ACT: How Do They Differ?

If we took a poll of the United States and asked Americans if they know the difference between the SAT and the ACT, I imagine that less than 20% of people would know. Which is quite odd considering these tests are taken by nearly every high school student in our country and are required by nearly every college. In order to clear up the confusion surrounding these tests, allow me to explain the small nuances between the two.


The SAT, perhaps the most commonly known test, is far more difficult than the ACT. For starters, this test asks students to use college-level thinking in order to have success. That means that every passage the student reads and every question they encounter is above a high school level. This college entrance exam also uses a certain amount of trickery to fool students into choosing the incorrect answer. They put in choices that seem correct, but are actually wrong. I know that seems totally unfair, but the SAT allows colleges to imagine how you will succeed in your tertiary education by testing you on university level critical thinking.

This test also takes much longer to complete, giving you more seconds per question to figure out the correct response. To some students, this alone is enough to sway them to take the ACT, a much shorter test. However, with the increase in time it takes to complete the test comes the increase in time it takes to answer each question. After all, they are much harder questions.

Lastly, the SAT is most commonly used in public schools for sophomore and junior year students. Sophomore year, public schools require all students to complete an initial practice test (or PSAT) which then goes on to mean virtually nothing in terms of the National Merit Scholarship. Then, junior year, students are required to take what I refer to as their “official” PSAT. This PSAT is important because the scores can be submitted to the National Merit Society for scholarship recognition. Which, by the way, is a huge deal for any student who desires to go to college.


It is similar to the SAT, with a few important differences. The ACT, unlike the SAT, has a science section. This has been known to scare off a lot of students. However, it’s important to understand that this so-called “science” section is more like a reading section. The science section asks you to read scientific passages and answer questions relating to that passage. It also tests your ability to read tables, charts and graphs and answer questions related to them. So have no fear – the science section is not solely testing your knowledge of chemistry, biology or physics.

Secondly, the ACT is widely considered to be the easier of the two tests, despite the scary science section. Rather than testing students at the college level, the ACT tests students on their ability to recall information learned in high school. This means that the SAT reading passages might be more appropriate for the voracious reader. And the ACT reading passages can be related to normal high school material or at least material that your high school student can more easily maneuver.

It’s important to note that despite the clear differences between these tests, most colleges and universities will accept either the SAT or the ACT. Please remember to look on your chosen schools application requirements page to ensure they don’t recommend submitting certain scores. After all, you don’t want to submit your ACT scores to a school that prefers SAT scores.

I know it seems daunting now, but taking both tests has become much more popular than it used to be, so look into test prep opportunities for both exams and increase your chance of getting the scores you want. Give us a call at 208-331-9020 for a practice ACT or SAT!

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