Preparing for the ACT vs SAT: Understanding the Difference

All high school students understand the urgent necessity to prepare for college admissions exams. There is no doubt that the SAT is one of the most important standardized tests as a factor in college admissions. If you do not know much about the SAT, refer back to this article. However, another notable test to consider looking into is the ACT. The ACT is designed to help students find an alternative exam to test different content and procedures that they may be more comfortable with. Although there are a number of similarities between the two tests, there are also a few notable differences.

What is the difference?

The ACT is different from the SAT for a few reasons. The first reason relates to the type of content that is examined in the ACT. In this exam, students will have to take a science section, which isn’t included on the SAT. Considering how diverse the science field is in the real world, it is necessary to have an opportunity that allows students involved with this field to demonstrate their skills. For this reason, the creators of the exam decided that it would be most beneficial to include a science portion in which students who are knowledgeable in this field can have the opportunity to put their skills to the test.

Another difference to consider is the format. On the ACT, students will have four sections to complete instead of three. This means that there is not as much time allotted to students to complete each section, resulting in the necessity to have adequate time management skills. The first section is the English section. In this section, students will have to answer 75 questions in a time frame of 45 minutes. This means that students will have roughly 36 seconds to answer each question, which isn’t much time. The second section is the math section, in which students will have to answer 60 calculator active questions in one hour. The third portion of the exam is the reading section. This portion is shorter than the one recognized on the SAT as the test-takers will have to answer 40 questions in a time frame of 35 minutes. The final section of the test is the science portion, which consists of 40 questions and a time limit of 35 minutes.

As you can probably tell, the ACT is much faster in pace in comparison to the SAT. There is much less time to answer each question, meaning that there usually will not be extra time in the end to check answers. With this in hand, it is necessary to be sure that you read each question carefully to avoid careless mistakes as you will have very minimal time to go over your work and make changes.

The Scoring Format

The ACT consists of a scoring format that takes the number of questions you get correct in each section and converts it to a numerical value from 1 to 36. This means that the highest possible score a student can achieve is 36, and the lowest is 1. Your composite score on the exam is calculated by taking the average of the scores that you got on all four sections (adding up your reading, math, English, and science scores and dividing by 4). Something important to note is that similar to the SAT, there is no such thing as losing points for incorrect answers. So if you are running out of time and have too many blank answers, it doesn’t hurt to guess!


Just like every other test, it is necessary that you go into the exam feeling prepared. There are many ways that you can go about studying for the ACT, but it is important that you take practice tests to simulate the environment that you will be in when taking the exam. This will allow you to work on your time-management skills as well as your ability to focus for long periods of time. Practice tests are available all over the internet, but here is a compiled list of free practice exams to take:

Practice Test 2005-2006

Practice Test 2008-2009

Practice Test 2011-2012

Practice Test 2014-2015

Practice test 2015-2016 Practice Test 2018-2019

If you feel like you have the time-management aspect of the exam down and you want to focus on your weaker subjects, there is a variety of resources that you can look at to have subject-specific practice problems to go through. The official ACT website offers sample questions for each subject as well as a rank based on the difficulty. This will help you get an idea of the difficulty of the content assessed for each subject, allowing you to improve upon your weaker spots.

Overall, the ACT is a great option for students to consider if they are knowledgeable in the field of science and are comfortable working in a fast-paced environment. It never hurts to try taking one of these exams to get a feel of which test may be better for you, and if it doesn’t work out, you can always switch back to the SAT. The most important thing is that you give it your all and work hard, so start preparing!


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