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Differences in College Exams

When it comes to the college exams, standardized tests are not one size fits all.

It’s important for students to take an exam that highlights their strengths and covers the material that they are most comfortable with. Looking at the differences between the ACT and SAT can help parents and students decide which test may be right for them.

The SAT and ACT are both made up of 4 sections, plus an optional fifth writing portion. Their run time is also similar, with a difference of just five minutes, as the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long and the SAT runs for a full 3 hours. Both tests have short breaks between sections, though the SAT has two (one 10 minute break after section 1 and another 5 minute break after section 3) and the ACT has only one 10 minute break (between sections two and three).

The most obvious difference between the exams is that the ACT has a science section, rather than two math sections like the SAT. This science section tests students on their ability to extract data and information from a series of graphs and material rather than on their general knowledge of science. Because of this, it is often said that the ACT is better suited for students who are stronger in English. Though this is sometimes the case, there are many factors that can affect how students respond to each test.

It is also worth noting that the ACT’s single math section allows for a calculator while the SAT math is split into no-calculator and calculator sections. The SAT math sections also provide students with a list of a few basic math formulas to know for the test rather than the ACT which requires these to be memorized. The reading sections on each test are also quite different, largely due to timing. The SAT reading section is 65 minutes long while the ACT’s is only 35, meaning that on the ACT, students have only 53 seconds per question while on the SAT they have 75 seconds. The SAT also has “evidence supporting” questions on its reading section; which are multiple choice questions that ask students to provide evidence from the text to support their previous answers. Though these questions may not make or break your score, they are absent from the ACT’s reading portion. The biggest take-away from all of this is that the weighted percentage of the score for the SAT is made up of 50% math, 25% reading, and 25% grammar, while the weighted percentage of the ACT is made up of 50% reading, 25% grammar, and 25% math.

With differences in structure, time and content, the only way to be sure of how well students will perform on either test is for them to take a diagnostic exam of both the SAT and ACT. These tests will allow students to see how well they handle time management and complex problem solving, while providing an initial assessment for the actual tests.

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