Differences in Test Structure
The SAT has math, reading comprehension, and writing & language components. These are set up in 4 sections -- 1 reading comprehension section, 1 writing & language section, and 2 math sections (1 without calculator and 1 with) -- plus an optional essay. The total time for the exam is 3 hours, or 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay. There is no penalty for guessing (there used to be on older versions of the SAT, but no longer!). The top score on the SAT is a 1600 (800 points each in Evidence-based Reading & Writing and Math).
Like the SAT, the ACT has a math, reading, and grammar section, as well as an optional essay. However, the ACT also has a science section. The science section does not test your knowledge of chemistry, biology, or physics, but rather your ability to read experimental procedures and data sets closely and critique experimental design. In fact, it’s more like a critical reading test on science experiment descriptions. The ACT is broken down into five sections and lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes without the writing, or 3 hours and 25 minutes with the writing. There is also no guessing penalty on the ACT. The top score on the ACT is a 36, which is calculated as an average of your scores on each of the four main components.
Differences in Test Purpose
The other differences in the tests can be understood by knowing a bit about the history of the two tests. The SAT was developed as an aptitude test in the 1920s, and the ACT was developed as an achievement test in response a few decades later. This means, in very general terms, that the SAT tries to test how smart you are, and the ACT tries to test how much you actually learned in high school.
The SAT focuses more on abstract reasoning, tougher vocabulary, and really tricky problems. The test is sort of like a logic test or a brainteaser (not coincidentally, the SAT’s original author also created the first IQ tests for the Army). However, the SAT gives students relatively more time per problem than the ACT.
The ACT, on the other hand, focuses less on complex problems and more on testing students on the concrete topics and skills that they should have learned in high school. The ACT, however, provides less time per problem, making timing the most challenging aspect of the test.
Make sure to read our post on how to determine which test you should take so that you can study wisely and maximize your score on the test that’s best for you!