Posted by on Sep 27, 2014 in SAT & ACT



Welcome to the new school year everyone! I’ve always found the start of a school year to be exciting and full of potential and promise: new classes, new teachers (or old favorites on new subjects), new combinations of friends and activities. So many possibilities, and so much to do.

And if you are a junior or senior, this time of year most likely has you thinking about standardized tests. Juniors are about to take their PSAT of record and are thinking about their upcoming SAT’s or ACT’s in the early spring; Seniors are taking their final versions of these tests and dreaming of the moment when all their college application hoops are jumped through and they can sit back and see how the acceptances come in.

I’ve been tutoring standardized tests for more than two decades now, and a question I get a lot is: what are the differences between the SAT and ACT and which test should I take? And while the tests have many points of similarity, there are also many significant differences that can help you decide which test to throw your preparation energies behind.

Just The Facts, Ma’am

The ACT is a 2 hour and 55 minute test consisting of 5 sections: Writing, Math, Reading, Science and an optional Essay, but to be competitive with your fellow applicants, it really isn’t optional: take the Essay. The sections range in length from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. The SAT, on the other hand, clocks in at nearly 4 hours, but is broken down into ten bite-sized sections (25 min or less) of Critical Reading, Writing, Math and a 30 minute Essay. If you are a student with a timing accommodation, the SAT can become monstrously long and unless you can take it over two or more days, the ACT may be the way to go. If concentration over long periods of time is troubling, the ACT is the shorter test, but has longer individual sections. If you tend to have trouble finishing within a time limit, the SAT has shorter sections and fewer questions per section, which is more forgiving for slower test takers.

Number Crunchers vs. Bookworms

The ACT tends to be a better test for math achievers and the SAT plays to the strengths of readers and those with a great vocabulary. The Science section of the ACT requires little to no outside science knowledge and essentially tests your ability to read charts and graphs and extrapolate data from them. If you enjoy math, you will enjoy and excel on the math and science sections of the ACT. The SAT has no science section, but has a heavy emphasis on vocabulary, which the ACT leaves out entirely. If you know your vocabulary is not all it should be at this point, the ACT is the better test for you. However you should also start a weekly self-study program of vocabulary enrichment; you will thank me when you hit your first college reading list and again when you have your first job interview!

Straight Shooters vs. Puzzle Lovers

Both tests cover reading comprehension and grammar, both have math sections and an essay. The ACT in general is more intuitive and the SAT is more “trick” based. If you are person who enjoys riddles and puzzles, utilizing tricks and has an eye for detail to avoid traps, the SAT is pitching the ball to your sweet spot. If instead you enjoy when things are simpler and more straightforward, albeit with slightly higher difficulty levels and longer sections, the ACT is your test.

Why A Small Investment Is Worth Its Weight In Gold

Both tests are incredibly teachable, and students can see a terrific return on investment from even a 6-8 week course of study. Just becoming aware of which points of grammar are tested on this test can make an enormous difference in performance on the writing sections. And reading was never meant to be tested in a standardized format, so learning what these tests are looking for as they claim there is one and only one right answer to each reading question goes a long way toward increasing accuracy and speed through those sections. There are excellent standardized testing tricks that can be applied to the math sections of both tests which will bring strong math students up to near perfection and will allow struggling math students to achieve much more and with much more ease. And having someone devote a few hours a week to teaching exactly what you need to know in exactly the style best suited to bolstering your test performance is priceless. Do yourselves a favor and talk to your friends or college counselor, get the name of a great private tutor in your area and do some prep work: your scores will rise and your stress levels will drop.

Happy Fall everyone. Keep breathing and keep enjoying the individual moments: standardized tests are important but they are only one element in a full and varied Junior or Senior year. Pick a test, get some help lined up, and get on with enjoying the richness of the season.

Lisa Morse