Last week, we hosted an SAT vs. ACT Seminar featuring Annie Burnquist, GLC Founder and UPenn graduate. Annie explained the ins and outs of the SAT and ACT to approximately 25 parents and students from McLean and Great Falls. During her seminar, Annie outlined these two tests in detail so families could make informed decisions about their testing plans. We would like to provide a recap of Annie’s presentation for our families who were unable to attend.
College admissions are more competitive and complicated than ever before, so it’s important to understand the testing landscape. Strong test scores – on either the SAT or ACT – don’t guarantee anything, but they do give students a boost relative to their peers. Students who determine which test will fit them best are well equipped to send door-opening test scores to their schools of choice. Annie began her seminar by providing an overview of both tests:
Structure. The SAT includes ten sections, including one experimental section that is not included in the student’s final test score. The ACT consists of four sections, plus an optional fifth Writing section.
Time. At 3 hours and 45 minutes, the SAT is a bit longer than the ACT, which lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes (or 3 hours and 25 minutes, if a student chooses to take the optional Writing section).
Material. The SAT includes sections testing Math, Critical Reading, and Writing skills. The ACT tests English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning, and (optionally) Writing.
Grading. Each SAT section is graded on a scale of 200-800 points, for a maximum score of 2400. Every ACT section is scored out of 36 possible points, and an overall average (composite) score is provided. The score received on the ACT’s optional Writing section is not included in the composite average.
While the SAT and ACT test many similar skills, they report students’ scores in very different fashions. Many families are confused about these two tests because it can be difficult to understand how scores are calculated. Annie explained how each test’s scoring works and shared some information that can help families compare performance on the SAT and ACT:
Correct and Incorrect Answers. Both the SAT and ACT award one point for each correct answer. However, incorrect answers are handled differently; the SAT deducts ¼ point for each incorrect response, while the ACT does not penalize wrong answers. On each test, a student receives a “raw score” based on the number of points scored, which is then converted to a section score.
Section Scoring. The SAT converts each student’s raw score into a section score ranging from 200-800, with the total score for the entire test ranging from 600-2400. The ACT converts each raw score into a section score ranging from 1-36, and provides a “composite” score consisting of the average of the section scores from English, Math, Reading, and Science.
Average Scores. With scoring confusing on both the SAT and ACT, what exactly makes up an average score? Our chart below outlines section-by-section and overall averages for the SAT and ACT:
|Math - 515||Math - 21|
|Critical Reading - 502||Reading - 21.5|
|Writing - 494||English - 20.7|
|Overall - 1511||Science - 21|
|Composite - 21.1|
Equivalent Scores. As the table above indicates, a 1511 on the SAT is roughly equivalent to a 21.1 on the ACT. But most students don’t receive scores that are exactly average, so how can comparisons be made? Click here to download our SAT vs. ACT Score Comparison Chart.
The differences in test structure and scoring sometimes make it easy to overlook the most important component of all: content. While much of the content on the SAT and ACT overlaps, each test includes some distinct material that students should be aware of before testing. Annie walked through each content category in detail during her seminar:
Math. The SAT’s Math content is tested on three sections of multiple-choice and free-response questions. These sections include content ranging from arithmetic and pre-algebra through the beginning of Algebra II. The ACT Math test includes a single 60-minute section of multiple-choice questions. Concepts range from arithmetic and pre-algebra through Trigonometry and some Precalculus. The SAT’s Math content is simpler than the ACT’s, but many students find the questions on the ACT more straightforward despite the more advanced material.
Reading. The SAT’s Critical Reading material is covered on three sections of multiple-choice questions spanning long, short, and paired reading passages and vocabulary-based sentence completions. The ACT Reading test contains a single 35-minute section devoted to multiple-choice questions on Prose Fiction, Social Studies, Humanities, and Science passages.
English. A wide variety of English grammar is tested on two SAT Writing sections. These SAT Writing questions require students to identify mistakes and correct sentences and paragraphs. The ACT English test includes a 45-minute section that tests similar types of grammatical and rhetorical concepts in a series of passages.
Science. The SAT does not test any science, but the ACT does include a 35-minute section of multiple-choice science reasoning questions. These cover interpretive, analytical, and problem solving skills that are used in the natural sciences. Students with strong scientific backgrounds often prefer the ACT because it plays to their strengths, but the ACT does not test science subject matter, so students who aren’t as strong with science can still score well if they have good reasoning skills.
Writing. The SAT and ACT test writing via an essay that assesses the student’s skills at forming a written argument, structuring a response, and applying the rules of standard, grammatically correct English. The ACT’s optional Writing test lasts 30 minutes.
Picking the right test can be tricky, but Annie pointed out a few strategic considerations that can help students make the right choice between the SAT and ACT:
Guessing. In some ways, the SAT is more strategically rewarding than the ACT because incorrect answers result in scoring deductions. Students are sometimes too reluctant to make educated guesses because they don’t want to lose points, but if they can eliminate two or more answer choices on an SAT question, they should always educated guess in order to maximize their scores. The ACT does not penalize incorrect answers, so students should always answer all the questions in a section, even if they don’t have time to look at the questions. Questions left blank on the ACT are missed opportunities for more points.
Subject Matter. The SAT’s content and structure can be favorable for a few types of students. With the SAT focused more on reasoning abilities than specific subject matter, strong test takers with good analytical skills often score higher on the SAT. Students who are relatively weak in science also tend to prefer the SAT because it doesn’t test that material. On the other hand, the ACT’s emphasis on subject matter rather than reasoning skills can favor students who are less skilled test takers. Strong science students also tend to prefer the ACT because they can boost their overall scores with strong performances on that section.
Timing. The SAT, with 10 relatively short sections, can be better for students who have difficulty focusing on the same material for extended periods. Additionally, the SAT is slightly slower paced than the ACT, with fewer questions per minute. The College Board, which administers the SAT, is also usually easier to deal with if a student requires special testing accommodations. The ACT, with just a few longer sections, can appeal to students who prefer focusing on one topic at a time rather than switching back and forth. The ACT’s faster pace, with more questions per minute than the SAT, can also reward students who work quickly.
There are many important points to consider when deciding between the SAT and ACT. Ultimately, students should choose the test that will yield the best scores, thanks to confidence with subject matter, strategy, and timing. A little data never hurts, either; if students are unsure which test to prioritize, they can always take practice SAT and ACT tests and then decide based on the results.
Annie was so pleased to discuss the SAT and ACT with so many of our McLean and Great Falls families last week. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about these tests, and stay tuned for details about upcoming seminars later this spring!
Director of McLean
Georgetown Learning Centers