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  • Jarek He

SAT vs ACT: A Brief History and Which to Choose

Disclaimer: This features my opinion and should not be taken as


Standardized testing is a struggle for many students. Months of work are put into a single test that will be used by colleges and universities to judge a student. Most students (at least where I live) grind hundreds of hours preparing for the SAT but have little knowledge of the ACT. With this post, I hope to educate you on both the SAT and ACT and help you decide which is the most appropriate for you.





Let's begin with the SAT. The SAT, or the Scholastic Aptitude Test as it was called, was created in 1926 as a modified version of an army IQ test used to check the intelligence of recruits to the US Army. At first, only a few thousand college applicants took the test but now it is used by hundreds of thousands of students across the country. Early versions of the test had 315 questions and students were given about 90 minutes to answer as many as they could. The SAT had sections of definitions, arithmetic, classification, artificial language, antonyms, number series, analogies, logical inference, and paragraph reading.


Later on, the test was shrunk and later split into two sections: verbal and math sections. Students had slightly less than 2 hours to answer 250 verbal questions and about 80 minutes to answer 100 free response questions. Scores were scaled so that the mean was 500 with a standard deviation of 100.


Fast forward half a century and the SAT now is scored out of 2400. Certain types of questions were eliminated from both the verbal and math sections to make the test similar to the curriculum taught in high schools. Now skip a few years to 2016 with the most recent score change, reducing the 2400 max score down to 1600. Another major change that came along with this is the removal of point deductions for wrong answers. Additionally, CollegeBoard partnered with Khan Academy to provide free test prep to students.


With this brief history over, let's get into the actual SAT itself.


The SAT consists of 3 sections, with the math having 2 subsections.


The Reading Test consists of 52 questions and a time limit of 65 minutes, with questions based on reading passages with the occasional accompanying graph. There are five passages with 10-11 questions following each one. Each Reading section has one passage from US or world literature, one passage from a US founding document, a social science passage, and two science passages.


The Writing and Language Test consists of 44 questions and a time limit of 35 minutes, forcing the test taker to manage their time well. This section requires the taker to read passages and correct grammatically or improve certain sections. Skills tested include improving clarity, word choice, analysis of topics, punctuation, and changing word structure.


The Mathematics Test has two subsections: the No Calculator and the Calculator section. The No Calculator section has 20 questions and lasts 25 minutes. The Calculator section has 38 questions and lasts 55 minutes. Contents of the Mathematics Test contain material from Algebra I, Geometry, and early material from Algebra II.





The ACT on the other hand was created in 1959 as a direct competitor to the SAT. Originally, the test consisted of four sections: English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences. Later on, the Social Studies section was changed to the present-day Reading sections and the Natural Sciences section was changed to the Science Reasoning section with an emphasis on problem solving and comprehension rather than memorization. In 2005, an optional Writing Test was added featuring an essay. However, the material of the essay differs from that of the now removed SAT essay.


Compared to the SAT, the history of the ACT doesn’t involve too much, but that is because the SAT has about 30 years of age on the ACT. Now, let’s look at the different sections.


The English section consists of 75 questions that must be answered in 45 minutes and is the counterpart to the SAT Writing and Language Test. Questions focus on punctuation and grammar as well as organization and style. Passages are provided with underlined portions that questions are provided for.


The Math section, taken after the English portion, consists of 60 questions answered in 60 minutes. The topic breakdown consists of 14 pre-algebra questions, 10 elementary algebra, 9 intermediate algebra, 14 plane geometry (shapes), 9 coordinate geometry (on a coordinate plane), and 4 trigonometry questions. Calculators are permitted for the entire section.


The Reading section consists of 40 questions answered in 35 minutes. There are three long passages and a section with two shorter passages with the passages being at a first year college level. This section tests key ideas and details, structure, and integration of ideas. Students may be asked to infer the meaning of the author, determine main ideas, find and interpret important details, understand sequence of events, and more.


Finally, the Science section features 40 questions answered in 35 minutes. There are 6 passages with five to seven questions following each. The passages can be about data representation, research summary, and conflicting viewpoints.





Now that we covered both tests, onto which is best for you with a comparison of each section.


Let's start with the reading section. The SAT reading section is longer but more time is provided for each question. However, some may find that the SAT questions are much more difficult than those on the ACT. The SAT features questions that ask students to show where they found information that answers a previous question, something that may trip up test takers and isn’t found on the ACT. The ACT, on the other hand, features more straightforward questions, something that compensates for the low question times.


The Writing/English section is similar in both tests; they both test the same grammatical things. However, the ACT English section is significantly longer than the SAT, being almost twice as long. Some students find that the ACT English is easier to run through than the SAT, as they find that it is more straightforward.


The Math section diverges quite a bit. The SAT math section has a no calculator and a calculator section, both containing multiple choice as well as fill in. The ACT math section is completely multiple choice with a calculator allowed for the entire portion. The ACT math section is also more straightforward, having less lengthy word problems compared to the SAT.


The Science section is exclusive to the ACT. While it appears intuitive, it is located at the end of the entire test, resulting in many students being exhausted and not performing at their maximum potential. However, this portion is easily studied for and just requires that the student have a little bit of energy to push through.


In summary, the ACT is faster paced but more to the point. If you are more math oriented and favor an easier reading section, the ACT may be for you. The SAT provides more time per question but the questions may trip you up. If you are English oriented and want an easier math section, the SAT may be what you want. These are still just suggestions, and you want to take a practice test for each to determine what is the best fit for you.


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