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Coke vs. Pepsi. Burr vs. Hamilton. The Yankees vs. the Red Sox. Of all the intense rivalries in sports, business, and history, perhaps none has been more heated than that between the SAT and ACT. Think of the SAT vs. the ACT as Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, if you replace the two fighters slugging it out for the heavyweight championship of the world with two educational bureaucracies vying over who gets to torment more teenagers.
Before we get to the similarities and differences between these competing exams—and answer the perennial question, “Which test should I take?”—let’s take a brief detour into the history of college admissions testing for some helpful context.
The SAT was born (or unleashed, if you prefer to think of the SAT’s birth as more of a Rosemary’s Baby-type event) on June 23rd, 1926, when a Princeton University psychology professor named Carl Brigham administered the first “Scholastic Aptitude Test” to several thousand unsuspecting teenagers. As its name implied, the SAT didn’t claim to test knowledge. Rather, the test was designed to identify students with aptitude—those with the most potential to succeed in college. And how did the SAT purport to determine which students had the best chances of succeeding in college? Well, the very first SAT featured 315 questions, with such antiquated doozies as the math problem reproduced below:
If a package containing 20 cigarettes costs fifteen cents, how many cigarettes can be bought for ninety cents?”
We swear we didn’t make this question up—there actually were tobacco-themed math problems on the inaugural SAT! In fact, a staggering twenty percent of the questions in one math section involved calculating the cost of purchasing a certain number of cigarettes.
How it could be argued that any of these inane (and possibly carcinogenic) questions helped colleges determine who gets to be admitted is beyond us, but the SAT was the only game in town and it stuck, entrenching itself as a dreaded rite of passage for high school juniors throughout the country.
The Rise of the ACT
A lot happened in 1959. Hawaii became the 50th state. The first Barbie doll was unveiled. NASA’s Pioneer 4 became the first American spacecraft to orbit Earth. And, in a quiet corner of Iowa, a sensible education professor named Everett Lindquist posed a crazy counter idea to the SAT: “What if, instead of testing students on their potential to succeed in college, we test them on what they actually, know?” With this simple question, the American College Testing (or ACT) program was born.
Over the next 50 years, the SAT and ACT evolved into parallel tracks for college admissions, but with distinct regional bents. With its science section, lack of challenging vocabulary questions, and straightforward approach, the ACT was dominant in the South and Midwest. Meanwhile, with its antonym and analogy questions, the older and stodgier SAT reigned supreme among the older and stodgier schools on the East Coast.
Then in 2016, something mysterious happened. The SAT dramatically changed its format to be much more like the ACT.
Actually, it wasn’t a mystery at all. What happened was that in 2012, the once-dominant SAT was overtaken in national popularity by the ACT, a test the College Board had long regarded as more of an annoyance than a genuine competitor. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em,” the SAT dropped its emphasis on esoteric vocabulary words and its policy of penalizing incorrect answers, and “redesigned” its questions to more closely align with what students learn in the classroom. Translation: The SAT became what the ACT had been all along.
So, which test should you take? And if the current versions of the SAT and ACT are so alike, shouldn’t students take both tests and then use whichever one yields a higher score? Perhaps, but there are still important differences to consider when you’re deciding whether to take the SAT, ACT, or both.
Timing Is Everything
One of the primary differences between the SAT and ACT has nothing to do with content. The difference lies in the number of questions and in the amount of time students have to answer each one. Here’s how the two tests compare:
|Total Number of Questions||Time Students Have to Answer Each Question|
|SAT Math||58||82.75 seconds|
|ACT Math||60||60 seconds|
|SAT Reading||52||75 seconds|
|ACT Reading||40||52.5 seconds|
|SAT Writing and Language||44||48 seconds|
|ACT English||75||36 seconds|
As you can see, the SAT grants students a lot more time to answer questions than the ACT does. Students have 12 seconds more per question on the SAT’s Writing and Language Test than they do on the ACT’s English Test and over 20 seconds more per question for SAT Math than they do for ACT Math.
Given that disparity, why would anyone choose the ACT over the SAT?
Puzzles vs. Practical Knowledge
If the faster pace of the ACT were the only difference between the tests, then choosing which exam to take would be a no-brainer: the SAT would win every time. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While the SAT has become more like the ACT in recent years, it still retains some of its legacy as an exam that stresses reasoning, as opposed to the ACT, which stresses knowledge. And nowhere on these rival tests is this contrast more apparent than on the reading sections. Unlike the SAT’s Reading Test, which primarily features reasoning questions, the ACT’s Reading Test features many questions students can answer simply by finding the relevant information in the passage. To illustrate this difference, here are two sample questions, the one on the left from an actual ACT and the one on the right from an authentic SAT:
Sample ACT Reading Question
Which of the following is included in the author’s description of the old Victorian flat?
A. The smell of fish cooking
B. People coming and going
C. Unappreciative boarders
D. Fruit stacked in the corridor
Sample SAT Reading Question
Based on the passage, the author would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
A. Government policies can be more effectively framed and implemented if public opinion is consulted only sparingly.
B. Future generations have the right to enjoy the same advantages that previous generations have enjoyed.
C. Political leaders should prioritize citizens’ happiness over the enduring health of the economy.
D. Voluntary actions on the part of businesses are not sufficiently reliable to promote economic equality.
While these are only two questions, and while they are obviously taken out of context, you can see that the wording is significantly harder on the SAT’s Reading question than on the ACT’s. However, it’s not just the sophisticated language of the SAT vs. the shorter, more comprehensible language of the ACT that separates the exams.
The primary difference lies in the intellectual demands these rival exams place on students.
Unlike the ACT, the SAT doesn’t pose questions students can answer simply by retrieving information from the passage. The SAT asks questions that force students to draw logical conclusions about the author’s beliefs. Students tackling the SAT practically have to be mind-readers because so many of the reading questions (such as the one above) ask them to make assumptions about the author’s ideas and perspectives. In testing lingo, such questions are known as inference questions (as opposed to information questions), and if that sounds a lot more challenging to you, we agree.
The SAT’s and ACT’s Math Tests follow similar lines. Below are two sample math problems. The one on the left is taken from an actual ACT, and the one on the right is plucked directly from an SAT.
Sample ACT Math Problem
A coat originally priced at $80 is discounted to $60. By what percent is the coat discounted?
Sample SAT Math Problem
A study on television viewing in the United States reported that in 2015 Americans spent an average of x hours per week watching television. The study further reported that in 2016 the average number of hours Americans spent watching television increased to y hours per week. Which of the following represents the percent increase in the average number of hours spent watching television, per week, among Americans from 2015 to 2016?
B. (x – y) / y
C. 100(x – y) / x
D. 100(y – x) / x
If you’re tempted to choose answer (E) for the SAT question on the right, we don’t blame you. After all, just getting through the text of this problem feels like wading through a dense thicket of swampland. Of course, the SAT didn’t actually offer students the option to answer “WUH??” for this problem, but we’re pretty sure most teens confronted by this question would pick our cry of anguish and confusion over choices (A), (B), (C), and (D).
Remarkably, the ACT Math problem on the left and the SAT Math problem on the right test the exact same skill (the ability to calculate percent change). The SAT problem just feels so much harder than its ACT counterpart and arguably is so much harder because it’s difficult to figure out what the problem is even asking. This brings up:
The Factor That’s Most Often Overlooked, Even by Testing Experts
When asked about the key differences between SAT Math and ACT Math, most instructors and advisers focus on content and calculator policies. They’ll tell you that the ACT permits students to use a calculator on all of its math questions, while the SAT does not, and that the ACT tests some more advanced math concepts, while the SAT does not.
And while all of that is true—the ACT does feature more geometry questions, along with higher-level math questions on subjects like trigonometric identities and logarithms—the differences in content and calculator policies shouldn’t be used as determining factors. Instead, students should focus on the primary difference between the SAT and ACT: their exceptionally different styles. As you can tell from our sample math and reading questions, the ACT is fairly straightforward, while the SAT tends to be tricky and complicated.
The Bottom Line
Given the primary differences between the exams (timing and style), students really need to ask themselves what they value more: simplicity or pacing.
Do you want to take a test that’s straightforward and knowledge-based but requires you to move at a rapid clip (the ACT), or do you want a test that feels like a series of puzzles but gives you much more time to answer questions (the SAT)?
(We realize this is kind of like asking teenagers whether they’d rather clean their room or suffer a massive breakout, and that most high school students would simply answer “neither.” We therefore explore this path in our article on The Rise of Test-Optional Colleges.)
What about the ACT’s Science Test? I’m really good at science. Shouldn’t I take the ACT because it has a science section, which I will ace because did I mention I’m good at science? SCIENCE! Right?
The most significant structural difference between the SAT and ACT is that the latter contains a science section. Students typically view the ACT’s Science Test with either glee or dread, depending on how much of their free time they spend playing with test tubes.
However, while this difference may seem important, it’s not particularly meaningful. That’s because the ACT Science Test isn’t actually a test of science. The ACT’s Science Test is really a reading test, albeit a specific kind of reading test that requires students to evaluate scientific arguments and interpret tables and charts. As with the ACT’s actual Reading Test, students don’t need to have any outside knowledge to answer the Science Test’s questions. Everything students need is provided within the passages and graphs, though determining exactly where to find the relevant information to answer each question is easier said than done.
Also, while the SAT doesn’t feature a separate science section as the ACT does, there is still plenty of science-related content on every SAT. The SAT’s Reading Test always features two science-based passages on such teen-friendly fare as soil erosion in forest ecosystems and changing weather patterns in Papa New Guinea. Not to be outdone, the SAT’s Writing and Language Test also features a science-based passage, with recent topics ranging from the mating habits of sea otters to the migrations of the Clovis, a prehistoric group of people that came to North America 13,000 years ago and made a bunch of tools.
And just to be absolutely sure no one could ever accuse the SAT of not inflicting enough science on students, the test also features several questions relating to charts, tables and graphs, which the people in the SAT’s snappy name department call “infographics.” Here’s a sample along with an associated question from an actual SAT Reading Test:
|Object||Average distance from Sun (Earth distance = 1)||Radius (Earth = 1)||Mass (Earth = 1)||Average density (g/cm3)|
|Ceres (dwarf planet)||2.8||0.073||0.00015||2.7|
|Pluto (dwarf planet)||39.5||0.2||0.002||2.1|
Which statement is supported by data represented in the table?
A. Earth shows greater variation in density than Ceres does.
B. Juno’s average distance from the Sun is less than that of Ceres.
C. Some objects in the asteroid belt are greater in mass than Ceres is.
D. No other dwarf planet has a radius as large as that of Ceres.
So, in the end, the ACT’s Science Test isn’t that much of a differentiating factor between the rival exams.
When Are You Going to Get to the Part Where You Tell Me Which Test to Take?
We did promise that, didn’t we? Well, if you find that you perform better with more time per question, especially when it comes to reading comprehension questions, odds are you should lean toward the SAT. However, if you are comfortable with fast-paced exams and would rather tackle a more straightforward test than a “tricky” one, you should probably consider the ACT. And if science is your thing, well, it doesn’t really matter because ACT Science isn’t actually a test of scientific knowledge.
In reality most students don’t fall squarely into one camp or the other. At this point, the differences between the two tests are more stylistic than substantive, so the best way to know which one suits you is to take a hybrid test designed to evaluate your individual strengths and weaknesses. And if this hybrid test could provide you with a personalized plan that will not only help you determine which test is a better fit, but also help you plan your preparation so you can maximize your score, that would be great, right?
Well guess what? We happen to offer that evaluation for free. Email us for an assessment, and we’ll gladly help you find the right path.
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