March 7, 2016

Standardized Tests: SAT or ACT?

Photo of standardized test sheet with answers filled in and pencil eraser.

Most, if not all, college and universities require the submission of standardized test scores. There are currently two types of standardized tests that colleges accept: the SAT and the ACT. In addition, there are a few higher education institutions that require an additional test called an SAT II; however, this article focuses on the differences between the SAT and ACT.

Some students perform better on the SAT, while others score higher on the ACT. There is no definite answer as to which test students will perform better on, but to help hone in on the right test, here are a few key features of the SAT and the ACT.

  1. Science. The SAT doesn’t have a science section. The ACT “science” section is about strategy and interpreting the given information loosely based on scientific subjects.
  2. Vocabulary. The SAT has a greater emphasis on vocabulary while the ACT focuses on grammar and rhetorical skills.
  3. Essays. Both tests come with optional essays, but students are not penalized if they choose not to take them. The SAT essay asks you to evaluate a writing sample, whereas the ACT essay asks you to present an argument on a complex issue and support it.
  4. Math. The SAT has a few fill-in-the-blank math problems called grid-in questions where you have to produce your own answers, and one half of the math section does not allow the use of a calculator. On the other hand, the ACT includes a few mathematical concepts that are not covered on the SAT, including trigonometry, imaginary numbers, advanced geometric shapes, logarithms, and more. Students are allowed to use a calculator for the entire ACT math section.
  5. Time. The SAT gives you more time per problem than the ACT. If your student struggles with staying focused or feels pressured during timed exams, the SAT may be the test of choice.
  6. Scoring: The SAT is scored out of 1600 possible points, and the ACT is scored out of 36 possible points. Should students decide to retake either test, they may choose to send their best score from a single test day.

Check out sample tests and free prep materials

Another way to evaluate which test is a better fit is to look at a sample of each test online, and try answering a few questions from each section. It is usually very clear for students which test they prefer.

To prepare for the SAT or ACT, students should take advantage of free test materials available online and on mobile devices. Reviewing prep materials several months in advance of taking either test or practice test allows the materials and test-taking strategies to sink in.

LHES College Counselor Beth Conroy-Humphrey recommends students complete the optional essay for the SAT or ACT – regardless of which test score they end up using for college applications. “The essay is great practice for crafting personal statements for college and scholarship applications,” says Conroy-Humphrey. “It’s an opportunity for LHES students to sample college-level writing and think critically about the subject matter.”

When to take the exams

This year, LHES juniors were required to take the ACT on March 1. If students wish to take the ACT again, they must register and pay to retake the exam. Juniors or seniors may take the SAT on the following dates:

  • May 7 (register by April 8)
  • June 4 (register by May 20)

Students must register via mail or online ahead of time to take the SAT, which costs $54.50 with the optional essay, $43 without. Financial aid and extended time to take the test is available; check with college counselor Beth Conroy-Humphrey at 565-7904 ext. 229, or for more information.

Free Practice Exams and Test Materials


· Free daily practice questions through the mobile app

· Free comprehensive practice test through Khan Academy

· Free downloadable practice tests


· Free daily practice questions

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