Tips for the SAT/ACTs? And how to pick which one to do?

Tips for the SAT/ACTs? And how to pick which one to do?

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Let me establish the two main differences, hopefully this will help you decide which one you’re better suited for.

The SAT is much more generous with time, to a significant degree. The ACT has a science section which many find difficult. I describe it as a reading and logic test. It doesn’t need much outside knowledge of science. There is no separate science section on the SAT, though there will be science in the reading section.

Some people find the ACT to be more straightforward and feel the SAT uses more convoluted language. I understand that ACT has upgraded its math section so that it now inlcudes several much more difficult problems. SAT math is broken up into several sections interspersed with reading and English.

The essays are now different for each test also. In my opinion, the ACT essay is much easier, as it is easy to just make up whatever you like in terms of support for a thesis. The SAT essay requires reading a document and developing a thesis based on that document, and supporting it with evidence from within that document. So the ACT essentially just wants to see that you can write an essay, whereas the SAT wants to see not only that you can write an essay, but that you can understand and analyze a document.

Having said all that, there are more similarities than differences. One isn’t easier than the other. It’s best to do a practice test of each to see which you prefer, unless you can make a clear decision based on the facts I just listed.

The Structure: ACT

  • English Section: 45 minutes and 75 questions
  • Mathematics section: 60 minutes and 60 questions
  • Reading section: 35 minutes and 40 questions
  • Science section: 35 minutes and 40 questions (With Calculator)
  • Essay section: 40 minutes

Each of the four sections are marked out of 36. You’re overall score is a composite score out of 36.

The Structure: SAT

  • English (reading): 65 minutes and 52 standard multiple-choice
  • English (writing): 35 minutes and 44 standard multiple-choice
  • Mathematics section: 80 minutes (split across a 55 min section and a 25 min section – covering 45 multiple choice and 12 written answers)
  • Essay (optional, although we advise you take it): 50 minutes

Your overall score will be out of 1600.

In Summary:

  • ACT is generally more straight forward

  • ACT has a science section, SAT has science

  • SAT Math is harder than ACT Math

  • ACT can replace SAT and SAT subject tests for some universities

  • The SAT is new - not a lot of past papers are available (changed last March)

I hope this helps :slight_smile: In terms of tips, @j.lee2 should definitely be able to help!!


@Princeton.Tiger summarizes the similarities/differences really well. I’ll just add a little more, particularly in regards to the ACT:

The SAT’s new format, scored out of 1600, involves two main sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. This means that the math section is now worth 1/2 of the overall score, whereas the ACT math section is one of four sections (English, math, reading, science)-thus, a lot of students who have a harder time with math tend to go with the ACT, as the math score will factor less into the overall composite score. The science section of the ACT tends to throw some students off, but not to fear! It really does not require any scientific knowledge, and is much more about timing and reading graphs/figures. SAT or ACT prep books will really be helpful for preparations: Amazon has quite a variety of them, as do many book stores.

Now, in regards for tips for the ACT:

English section:
The English section is primarily focused on grammar. Most students have a reasonably good time with this, as long as they have been taught proper American English grammar; even if they have not, however, drills on the different types of questions (punctuation, sentence structure, etc.) are extremely helpful to raise your score.

Math Section
Two important things to know here: 1. The ACT math section has a general pattern of getting harder as you go 2. Calculators ARE ALLOWED (with the exception of TI-89, TI-Nspire CAS, and a few other more advanced calculators…TI-84 calculators are allowed though!!). Thus, I always recommend students to use their calculators, even for the basic arithmetic questions, since it minimizes any risk of simple calculation errors. Secondly, keep in mind that even if a question is really hard, it’s still worth the same number of points as any other question. Thus, if you know a question will take a really long time/you will really struggle with it, skip it and come back to it. Get as many of the easier points as possible first quickly, then spend time working through the difficult ones.

Reading section
The four major reading passages are as following: prose fiction/literary narrative, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. There are a few ways you can go about tackling these, but one way I really like to teach the ACT reading section is by passage type. The prose fiction/literary narrative and humanities passages typically read very similarly to books you may read for pleasure or in class; the types of questions here are likely to focus on things like tone of the passage, author’s intent, inferences, etc. The natural sciences (and to a lesser degree, social sciences) passages, on the other hand, focus on detail questions, which ask about names, dates, events, etc. Thus, if you keep this in the back of your mind as you read the passages, it will help you to go through the questions more easily.

Science section
The science section actually is really just about reading tables/figures and understanding them. The only exception to this is the Student 1 vs. Student 2 section, which gives two different perspectives on one scientific concept; treat this one the way you would treat a reading comprehension section, keeping in mind what they agree/disagree on in their respective passages. Frequently, timing is the most challenging part of the science section-thus, it is almost never necessary to actually read the introduction passages (again, with the exception of Student 1 vs. Student 2/Scientist 1 vs. Scientist 2 sections). A good strategy is to go straight to the questions, and then look for the figures/tables they refer to in the question and answer them that way; this will save a lot of time.

The new ACT essay gives three different perspectives on a general topic, and asks you to integrate the three perspectives into an argument about the topic (this can involve refuting any of the perspectives/agreeing with one of them). You can choose how you would like to do this, but typically, a five paragraph essay with a short introduction that states your stance on the topic and a conclusion that summarizes your essay should be included.

Hope this helps!


While definitely consider which test is right for you, the timing and locations of the test can be important to consider as well. There are more SAT test centers in Australia and New Zealand than ACT, however the SAT has just altered when it’s offering the test so there is now one less SAT test than ACT test offered each year. Some dates are during school holidays too so make sure you’re looking to see where and when you can take the tests as well.

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