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What You Need to Know About Standardized College Admission Tests

The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) are two standardized college admission tests incoming freshman can take for scholarship consideration and school acceptance. Most colleges accept both test scores, so students can take both exams and submit the higher score or choose the test that best supports their academic strengths. Practice tests are a great way to try out each test if you are undecided, as well as see the areas you are strongest in before registering for the real test. Take a look at the following areas where the SAT and ACT differ so you can start planning out your study schedule.


The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes long, whereas the ACT is 3 hours and 25 minutes long, with an additional 30 minutes for the optional writing portion. Take a practice exam to get used to a test of that length. There are breaks after each section of the ACT and every other section of the SAT, so learn how to pace yourself for each one.


The ACT is offered six times a year in the months of February, April, June, September, October, and December. The SAT takes place seven times a year during January, March, May, June, October, November and December. If you’re taking both tests, it is best to schedule the different tests 1-2 months apart so you can study for each properly. June, October, and December are the only months that both tests are offered, so avoid scheduling both tests then.

If you decide to retake the same exam, you have to wait a minimum of 30 days before you can test again. As a junior, you can take a practice test in the spring and your first and second exam in the fall to make sure your scores are submitted on time your senior year. Taking all exams in the spring of your senior year could cause a deadline mishap, so plan to take them earlier. Also, be mindful of your other schedules. Try to plan your study and exam dates for your standardized college admission tests during your off-season, lightest work schedule or easiest semester. Once you have a good month in mind, check out the exact test dates of the SAT and ACT at and


There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, but a ¼ point deduction for wrong answers on the SAT. If you choose to take an SAT Subject Test for a specialty school, there is a ¼ point deduction for incorrect answers of 5-choice questions, a ⅓ penalty for 4-choice questions and a ½ deduction for each incorrect 3-choice question. However, no points are subtracted for incorrect open entry questions in the SAT math section. Don’t let the penalty scare you away from taking the SAT! The SAT’s total score range is much larger than the ACT, so a fraction of a point deduction shouldn’t make too large of a difference. Also, if you are unsure of an answer, there are no points taken off for unanswered questions on the SAT. Unless you are completely stumped, it is still best to complete every question to increase your score chances.

Score Range

The SAT has a 600-2400 score range, and the ACT has a 1-36 range. Most colleges know that the scores you get on one test could change depending on the difficulty of each exam and section, so both exam scorecards also reveal the percentiles each student falls in. Percentiles are comparison scores of how your test measures up with other students who take the same test on the same day. For the SAT, total and statewide percentiles are also shown, which means the numbers could drastically differ for the same test.

Colleges can choose to focus on your mean score, raw scores for each section, state percentiles or all categories combined, so one type of score doesn’t always speak for the entire test. This gives schools a more holistic glance at your capabilities and could actually help your chances of getting accepted.  Generally, colleges look for how well you did on each section of the SAT and are more concerned with your composite ACT score. If you feel you are weaker in certain ACT sections than others, you could still end up with an impressive final score.


The SAT has Critical Reading, Math and Writing sections and begins with a required essay, while the ACT is broken up into English, Math, Reading and Science sections, with the optional writing test at the end.  For the SAT, the three sections are broken up into 10 smaller parts and switch back and forth between content areas. If you would rather be finished with one subject area as you go or feel you could get confused with all the moving around, the ACT might be your best choice. Still, with a little practice, you can master both standardized college admission tests.

Skill Emphasis

The ACT has a science section and tests more advanced math skills, but the SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary and literacy. Think back on the high school courses you’ve performed the best in so you can show off your abilities. The ACT science section won’t ask you to complete chemical formulas but will test how well you can draw conclusions from a set of scientific facts. Furthermore, ACT questions tend to more straightforward, whereas you may need more time to understand exactly what is being asked of you for the SAT. Because the SAT tests how well a student can analyze and problem solve, the questions are designed to be more elaborate in structure.


The SAT has a 25-minute essay section that is required, and the ACT has an optional writing test portion. Your SAT essay scores are factored into your final score, but the 30-minute ACT essay is not included in your composite score. Instead, students receive an individual score of 1-6. Even if your school does not require the ACT essay, it is still a good idea to take the essay if you feel you can boost your academic appeal and have always been a strong writer. SAT essay scores are the combined scores from 1-6 of two readers, meaning your final essay score is only between 2-12. If the two judges’ scores differ by more than a point, a third reader scores the essay. Become familiar with the scoring guidelines on each of the testing websites to know what criteria is used to determine the score levels so you can better prepare.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to the SAT and ACT. Although there are a number of differences between the two standardized college admission tests, both test styles can be mastered through preparation and dedication. Give yourself enough time to try out the tests, practice and study your preferred options to perfect your real scores. With our advice and the volumes of practice material available on the Internet and bookstores, you can make the right test choice and get the score you need to get into your top college.

What’s the Difference?

Whether you took the ACT or the SAT used to be a matter of where you lived. The Midwest and Southern states preferred the ACT, while the Northeastern states and more selective schools preferred the SAT. Though some schools still prefer one over the other, the large majority will accept either test. So what’s the difference?

The ACT has a science section

If you have a strong background in your high school sciences, this might be your chance to shine. Though the ACT doesn’t really test you over scientific knowledge, it does test your reasoning based on scientific facts.

The ACT tests more advanced math concepts

The ACT tests you over trigonometry in addition to basic math, algebra and geometry. Though the SAT won’t test you on trigonometry, students report that the ACT math questions are easier to understand than SAT math questions.

The ACT writing test is optional

On test day, you’ll be required to take the writing section on the SAT, where on the ACT, it’s optional. Check and see if the schools you are applying to require the writing test.

The ACT is more straightforward

Students report that overall, the questions on the ACT are simpler and easier to understand, whereas on the SAT you might have to spend more time analyzing the question before you can answer. If timed tests stress you out or you are a slow test taker, take this into consideration.

The SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary

This goes back to some students reporting the ACT is more straightforward. If Scrabble is your game, then you’ll love the SAT. If a game of Scrabble suddenly limits your vocabulary to three letter words, then you might prefer the ACT.

Other differences

The SAT was designed to test your aptitude, and the ACT was designed more to test knowledge. You won’t be penalized for guessing on the ACT, but you will if you take the SAT so have a strategy going into whichever exam you plan on taking.

Bottom line

At the end of the day, the choice to take the SAT or the ACT comes down to personal preference and the preference of the colleges you are applying to. Always check and see if the schools you are applying to prefer the ACT, SAT or have no preference. You’ll probably end up taking either test two or three times to improve your score. Also, you can always take each test once and then decide which one you prefer if your colleges of choice have no preference.

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