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10 Important Differences between the ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT are more alike than they’ve ever been. The 2016 redesign of the SAT brought that exam considerably-closer in both form and function to the ACT. Some sections are virtually identical, and neither exam penalizes students for incorrect answers. That having been said, there are still some crucial differences between the two exams. This week we’re going to look at 10 of the most important ways in which the ACT and SAT differ.


  1. Changes

The College Board normally makes only major changes to the SAT, including the 2016 redesign and the introduction of the Writing and Essay sections before that. ACT, Inc, on the other hand, tends to make smaller modifications to the ACT over the years, such as modifying the Writing (essay) assignment and adding dual passages to Reading. SAT changes are widely-publicized while ACT changes tend to receive little, if any, fanfare.


  1. Reading

SAT Reading has a more generous time limit, but questions tend to be longer and more complex. ACT Reading has a very strict time limit, but questions are usually shorter and relatively straightforward.


  1. Permitted Calculators

The list of calculators allowed on the ACT is stricter than the list allowed on the SAT. Both exams prohibit the use of any calculator than can connect to the internet or can store programs in memory. (There are exceptions to the latter rule provided you demonstrate that the internal memory of the calculator has been wiped clean.) However, some of the most popular models, such as the TI-89, are allowed on the SAT but prohibited on the ACT.


  1. Calculator Usage

You can use an approved calculator at any point on the ACT Math section. SAT Math, on the other hand, has separate “Calculator” and “No Calculator” sections.


  1. Math Formulas

The SAT provides a list of essential math formulas at the beginning of both the “Calculator” and “No Calculator” Math sections. The ACT provides none of the formulas students might need to help solve the Math section questions.


  1. Science

The ACT has a dedicated Science section. There is no equivalent section on the SAT.


  1. Essay

The SAT Essay and ACT Writing are practically opposites. The SAT Essay is an analytical response to a provided document. ACT Writing is primarily a persuasive essay on a topical issue. (There are some analytical elements courtesy of the three “perspectives.”) You must take a position on the ACT Writing topic, but you will be punished for saying whether you agree with the author of the SAT document.


  1. Charts, Graphs, and Tables

All multiple choice sections of the SAT include data presentations of some kind. The ACT limits data presentations to the Math and Science sections.


  1. Student-Produced Response Questions

SAT Math includes a handful of student-produced response questions where you must “grid-in” the correct answer. ACT Math contains only multiple choice questions.


  1. Quality and Quantity of Official Study Material

Before the redesign of the SAT, the ACT generally had the edge in both the quality and quantity of official practice material available to students. While the official SAT guide had 10 tests to the ACT’s 5, only the ACT guide provided answer explanations. Furthermore, ACT, Inc. would release a free “Preparing for the ACT” practice test in PDF form each year.


Since the redesign of the SAT, this situation has gradually reversed. The newest addition of the Official SAT study Guide contains 8 practice tests with full answer explanations. These tests are also available for free on the College Board’s website.  In addition, the College Board had partnered with Khan Academy to provide a free, customizable, online practice tool.


ACT, Inc., by contrast, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. The last two editions of the Official ACT Prep Guide include only 3 practice tests, and one of these tests is taken from an earlier edition. Because of the ACT’s fondness for gradual changes, the older “Preparing for the ACT” PDFs available online will become progressively more out of date with each passing year. This isn’t helped by the fact that the most recent “Preparing for the ACT” PDF contains the same practice test as last year’s PDF did. ACT, Inc. does provide an online study module, but it requires the purchase of the official guide to use and is not as well-executed as the SAT’s Khan Academy partnership.


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