The SAT and the ACT are the two main standardized tests given for entrance into college. The SAT tests a student's aptitude for learning and has more of an emphasis on the wording of questions than the reciting of facts. The ACT tests a student's knowledge, asking for recall of the subjects learned in high school. You don't have to go into either test blind -- both the ACT and SAT have online practice tests that enable you to see exactly the types of questions asked.
What is on the ACT?
The ACT has four sections -- English, math, reading and science -- plus an optional writing test. The English tests your grammar and knowledge of sentence structure, as well as style and organization skills. Math covers all the algebra, geometry and trigonometry taught through the beginning of the senior year. Reading tests how well you understand what you read using short essays and paragraphs. The science test covers biology and physical science and asks you to interpret graphs, tables and research experiments. The optional writing test measures writing skills with a written essay.
What is on the SAT?
The SAT has three sections -- critical reading, writing and math. Critical reading covers diction, vocabulary strength and ability to read and understand written passages. Writing includes one essay question along with the multiple choice questions. It covers grammar, sentence structure and ability to correct errors in writing. Math covers basic math skills, algebra and geometry. Though the SAT contains 170 multiple choice questions plus one essay compared to the ACT's 215 multiple choice questions and one optional essay, the SAT takes more time to complete.
What's the Difference?
The two tests are similar in many respects, but there are also several differences. On the ACT, it is best to guess if you don't know an answer. On the SAT, points are deducted for wrong answers so you should only make educated guesses. The ACT has more advanced math questions. Besides covering trigonometry, it also asks about unreal numbers, logarithms and matrices. The SAT is much more vocabulary intensive than the ACT. There is more emphasis on the wording of math questions on the SAT. The SAT also does not contain any science questions.
Examples of Types of Questions
Both the ACT and the SAT are multiple choice tests, with one essay section. Examples of math questions include finding the value of x in equations, finding coordinates of lines, solving multi-part equations using the rules of order, solving word problems and finding angles, among others. English questions include choosing the correct word to complete a sentence, locating sentence errors and choosing better wording for part of a sentence, among others. The science questions, found only on the ACT, ask you to read about an experiment and answer questions about what the information tells you. The questions are aimed more at determining how well you interpret the data you are given, rather than having you come up with data yourself.
- Princeton Review: SAT Sections
- College Review: ACT vs. SAT Differences
- The New York Times: ACT vs. SAT
- The ACT: Description of the ACT
- CollegeBoard: About the SAT
- The ACT: Science Test Description
- The ACT: Content Covered by the ACT Mathematics Test
- The ACT: English Test Description
- The ACT: Reading Test Description
- Peterson's: Test Prep -- Choosing the ACT or SAT
- Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images