Hello, and thank you for tuning in to my inaugural blog post! My name is MattLamb, and I am an educational coach and test prep instructor for LEC.
My blog posts will focus mainly on test prep, and will include explanations of various concepts tested on the SAT and ACT, step-by-step instructions for solving different types of problems, section-specific strategies for math, reading, writing, and science, and more general advice regarding test-taking strategy, preparation techniques, and mindset.
As many of these posts will be discussing elements of the ACT and SAT, I figure a good place to begin will be to outline the similarities and differences between the two tests. In a subsequent post I will talk more about how to decide whether you should take the ACT or SAT, but before we get into that, I think we need an idea of what to expect from each.
Structure and scoring:
The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36 (36 is the best) and is composed of four sections: english, math, reading, and science (in that order). You receive a score from 1-36 on each section, and then those scores are averaged to get your composite. To note, math is ¼ of an ACT score.
The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600 (1600 is the best) and is also composed of four sections: reading, writing, math no-calculator, and math calculator (in that order). The reading and writing sections are combined to get a score from 200-800, and the two math sections are combined to get a score from 200-800. To note, math is ½ of an SAT score.
Both tests do also have an optional essay, but neither one contributes to the overall score (so you can get a 36 or a 1600 regardless of how well you do on the essay). In a (way) later post, we will talk about the essays, and how to approach each, but for today I’m going to focus on the scored sections for each test.
This is the section where the two tests are most similar. Both the ACT English and SAT Writing sections test standard english conventions and rhetorical skills. Common questions on both include punctuation, pronoun use, verb tense, adding/deleting sentences, transition words (however, moreover, therefore, etc.), vocabulary, wordiness, and combining sentences.
The biggest overall difference would probably be pacing: the ACT has 75 questions in 45 minutes (so to finish on time you need to answer 1.67 questions per minute) whereas the SAT has 44 questions in 35 minutes (1.25 questions per minute). In general, however, this is the section that students have the easiest time completing in the allotted time for both tests.
Another minor difference is that the SAT will have a few graph interpretation questions, which the ACT does not. Conversely, the ACT will often have a question at the end of passages asking, “Suppose the author’s goal in writing this had been to so-and-so, did the author accomplish that goal?”, which the SAT does not. These differences are pretty minor, and preparing for this section on either test will prepare you pretty well for both exams.
Both the SAT and ACT break their math sections into various “subscores” based on topic, but these categories usually offer students little enlightenment when trying to compare the tests. Based on my experience working with each test, I typically frame the biggest difference like this: the SAT focuses more heavily on algebra, whereas the ACT focuses more heavily on geometry.
For example, the SAT math asks a lot of questions about systems of equations (substitution and elimination are big here), interpreting the slope and y-intercept of a line, finding factors and solutions of quadratic equations (ones with x2 ), and isolating variables. The ACT will have more questions involving area, perimeter, volume, finding the size of an angle, using SOH CAH TOA, basic trigonometry, and finding midpoints.
Now don’t get me wrong: there is substantial overlap. The SAT will likely have some geometry based problems and the ACT will certainly have several algebra based problems, but this is one general trend that I’ve noticed.
Some other big differences: the ACT does NOT have a formula sheet at the beginning (probably part of the increased emphasis on geometry), and on the ACT you get a calculator for the whole section, whereas on the SAT you have one no-calculator section and one calculator section.
As far as pacing, the SAT has 20 questions in 25 minutes for no-calculator (1.25 minutes per question) and 38 questions in 55 minutes for calculator (1.48 minutes per question), whereas the ACT has 60 questions in 60 minutes (I’ll let you guys do the math on that one), so in theory the SAT is more generous time-wise.
In practice, this is not always the case for students (a lot of students have trouble finishing no-calc on time for the SAT), and I think the timing component largely stems from which test students feel more comfortable with, which is why it’s important to figure out which test you feel better about (again, more on this later).
Probably the biggest differences between SAT and ACT reading are the lengths of the reading sections and the pacing for each. The SAT reading has 52 questions in 65 minutes (1.25 minutes per question) whereas the ACT reading has has 40 questions in 35 minutes (0.88 minutes per question). The SAT has 5 passages, so you have 13 minutes per passage if you want to finish on time, whereas on the ACT you have 4 passages, which means just under 9 minutes per passage. What this means, of course, is that you need to move a bit more quickly through the ACT passages.
One pretty significant trade off, however (and this is just my opinion, but I think a pretty safe claim) is that the ACT passages tend to be easier to understand. The language is simpler and the ideas are easier to trace. For most ACT reading comp questions, finding the right answer is simply a matter of locating the correct piece of information in the passage. While the strategies are similar for the SAT, on the SAT there is oftentimes more disentangling of the language and working to identify the meaning of the passage.
The SAT also has two types of questions not seen on the ACT: graph interpretation (just like on writing) and evidence questions (ie: “Which of the following sentences gives the best evidence to answer the previous questions?”). Evidence questions in particular are a critical component to the SAT, and I will do an entire blog/vlog/infoseries on this type of question.
The most obvious difference between the two tests is that the ACT has a science section, whereas the SAT does not. Students often freak out about the science section: it’s usually the section people do worst on when they first take a practice test, and unfortunately it deters many people from taking the ACT. We will go into this more in the post about deciding which test to take, but for now, suffice to say: You don’t need to know science to do well on the ACT science test!
The science section focuses on reading and interpreting graphs, tables and charts, much like reading comp involves reading and interpreting passages. The timing component on science is the hardest part about it (40 questions in 35 minutes, which can be tough) but the strategies for this section are very learnable.
There’s a lot of info here, and I will definitely want to go into more depth on a number of the topics presented here, but for now this should give a pretty decent overview of some of the larger differences between the SAT and the ACT.
Till next time!
Matt Lamb is a Fairfax County native, graduating from T.J. in 2010 and William and Mary in 2014. Since then, Matt has worked extensively in the field of standardized test prep, focusing primarily on SAT, ACT, and LSAT.
Before coming to Linder EC, Matt worked full-time in Los Angeles as a test-prep tutor, and helped create new curriculum content for the revised SAT, which was released in 2015. Matt has always been motivated to find helpful and accessible ways to present information to students.
Matt was a national merit scholar in high school, graduated summa cum laude from William and Mary, and scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and the LSAT. Matt feels strongly that the tools to this type of academic success are, to a large extent, teachable, and is excited to continue growing and improving the test-prep program at LEC.