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What Is the Difference between the SAT and the ACT?

written by: Tia Ahmed•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 3/20/2011

There are many choices in life, but there should be fewer choices when determining what test to take when applying to a college. Learn what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT as this difference can get you in a college or get you rejected from one.

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    Why the Test Matters

    What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT? First of all, both the SAT and ACT are used by most universities and academic institutes as a determinant of admission. There are some colleges out there that do not require any of these tests and simply go by your GPA. Keep in mind, however, that most of these colleges would require an extremely high GPA if that is all they go by in terms of scores.

    Scores are very important to universities; higher scores mean a higher ranking for them. Top universities such as Harvard and Yale won't even glance at your application unless you have scores that meet their minimum requirement. But beware that most universities also put your scores in with the rest of the application scores they receive. Say for instance, the seventy-fifth percentile score that you may have received is a score that means that you did better than seventy-five percent of the people that took the test the same time you did both nationally and internationally. The percentile does not mean you got a higher score than the average score, just higher than the average score made during that test. So what does that mean?

    This concept is rather confusing. It means your college will take note that you scored higher than most people that had taken the SAT or ACT when you did, but they will match up the scores of all the people that applied to their institution. Since scores from applicants can come from any time period of the test dates, there will be scores where being on the seventy-fifth percentile would be much tougher; for instance, if you received an overall score for the SAT that is 1500 out of 2400 and are in the seventy-fifth percentile for October 2004 and someone else gets an overall score of 1750 and is in the seventy-fifth percentile, then your percentile rating compared to that person's percentile will be lower.

    In other words, just because you did well against all the people that took the test along with you does not mean that you did well against all the people that applied to the same college. So, what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT when it comes to scores?

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    The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)

    The SAT exam is formatted to test a student's logical reasoning. The test initially focused on reading comprehension, vocabulary, trigonometry, geometry, algebra, and basic arithmetic problems, and scores were out of 1600. Now, the score has an additional writing section, which some colleges may use as part of their writing assessment of individual students. Additionally, some major changes have been conducted to later sections such as arithmetic to improve cross-cultural related questions; for instance, "rabbit's foot" is a coined term that may not be recognized by the diverse population of students who choose to take the test. (Please note that most standardized tests are said to never be identical to one another, meaning every given test at a given schedule is unique to that specific date. For instance, fall's SAT questions are not as same as spring's SAT questions.)

    The SAT has a devastating rule that penalizes for wrong answers. The test's ideal is that a student takes time to work out problems instead of guessing. A blank answer is not penalized and students are encouraged to leave answers blank instead of guessing. A wrong answer has a penalty point of -1/4, so, if you missed four questions, then you could lose an entire point! There are three main sections to the test: math, verbal, and writing. More information on test format and schedules are available on

    You have to register for the SAT through or through a school counselor if he or she is able. The current fee for the SAT is $45, which includes the new writing requirement section of the test. There are SAT subject tests as well if you feel like taking them.The subject tests can be used to replace certain required courses in college but generally are not given credit for and course requirements in college are dramatically different for each college. Most liberal arts institutions accept these tests but prefer the Advanced Placement tests or APs over these subject tests.

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    Please continue reading on page two for more about the differences between the SAT and the ACT.

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    So, what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT? The ACT focuses on what a student has learned and the SAT on what the student already knows. Add GPA into the equation and you will be well prepared for college.
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    The American College Testing (ACT)

    The ACT exam tests everything that the SAT does and even includes a section of scientific reasoning that the SAT does not have in their general test. The test's format is English, math, reading, and science reasoning. These are the only sections in the ACT and are longer and slightly lengthier than the SAT format. While the SAT has numerous sections with a small amount of time and more breaks, the ACT has longer sections with longer breaks and shorter time to work on the problems. There is also no penalty for guessing! You can guess incorrectly, leave it blank, or draw a funny face on it, and it will not count against you.

    The good part of the ACT is that if you don't want a writing section included, you don't have to have one, and, therefore, the ACT test is only $40 and, unlike the SAT, has more chances of waiving fees if financial problems arose. The ACT's focus is more on a student's curriculum learning. Has the student been learning the material a regular high school student should be learning?

    The registration process is also different. ACT tests are registered through, and most high school counselors have access to discounts for honor roll students, but this must be asked by the student since it differs from school to school. Also notice that the ACT does not have subject tests like the SATs; however, it attempts to cover most of the basic high school curriculum concepts and skills.

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    The Difference in Tests

    So, what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT then?

    Some argue that, since the SAT has been around longer, it is more credible than the ACT. That is not true. The ACT is fairly new, but the focus of the exam is to look at a student's academic experience as well as focusing on their logical reasoning. The SAT can be taken by someone who hasn't been through high school and is designed solely for the purpose of logical reasoning in language and mathematical skills.

    According to, the SAT is used by all institutions regardless of public or private. The ACT scores are not used by all colleges, but most public schools will accept them and some even require just the ACT. The SAT score is usually cut down and doesn't include the writing section of the test as most institutions require a college essay and would rather look at that than the writing portion of the SAT.

    The best thing to do to determine which test works for you is to take the PSAT, the pre-test for the SAT, and the PLAN, the pre-test for the ACT. If you scored higher in one, then pursue with that test. Every student is different, and every student has a choice in determining which test is best for them. Remember: If you score high in one test over the other, both scores would be sent to the schools. If you waited too long to send the scores, you would also have to pay an additional fee.