ACT vs. SAT – What’s the Difference?



Preparing for college is a process that spans a student’s entire high school career and parents can play an important role in keeping the focus on the ultimate goal, even while students can get distracted with all the excitement of high school. It’s important to have a comprehensive college preparation plan in place starting in the student’s Freshman year, ranging from an academic “college prep” curriculum plan, to a skills-and-resume-building plan to broaden the student’s experiences in the real world. These include activities like volunteering, joining clubs, completing internships, and participating in other service opportunities. Your guidance in helping your child select and commit to these activities is crucial to making the experiences a success.  In addition to the college selection and application process, college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT are a major component of the process. It’s important for parents to understand these entrance exams, and help the student put together a plan to prepare for them and optimize their scores, so they have a better chance to get into the college of their dreams.

What is on the ACT and SAT exams?

The ACT (formerly American College Testing) is a four-part exam with an optional essay component. Though once only used by colleges in the Midwest, the ACT has grown in popularity in recent years and is now accepted by virtually every university. The ACT test includes:

  • English: 75 questions in 45 minutes. This test requires students to choose the best corrections for grammatical errors in a sample passage.
  • Mathematics: 60 questions in 60 minutes. This test includes 24 problems in Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra, 18 questions in Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry and 18 questions in Plane Geometry/Trigonometry.
  • Reading: 40 questions in 35 minutes. This test requires students to read passages and answer both factual and interpretive questions about them. Half of the questions are based on readings in Social Studies and Science; the other half are based on readings in Arts and Literature.
  • Science: 40 questions in 35 minutes. This test presents students with data (charts, graphs or summaries of experiments) and asks questions that require students to analyze and interpret data using skills typically taught in science classes.
  • Writing: One essay in 30 minutes. This optional test requires students to write an essay arguing their opinion about an issue presented in the writing prompt.

SAT Basics

The SAT (Stanford Achievement Test) is the best known college admissions test and has undergone several changes in recent years, including a revamping of the essay component in 2016. The latest version of the SAT includes:

  • Reading: 52 questions in 65 minutes. This test requires students to read passages based mainly on Social Studies and Science. Questions include defining vocabulary based on context clues, analyzing how the author creates an argument, and selecting supporting evidence.
  • Writing and Language: 44 questions in 35 minutes. This test requires students to read passages based mainly on Social Studies and Science topics, but the passages contain errors. Students are asked questions about correcting grammatical and vocabulary errors as well as questions about topic development and organization of ideas and evidence.
  • Math: 58 questions in 80 minutes. Students are asked to solve word problems based on scientific and career scenarios, sometimes involving the use of graphs or other visual representations of data. About half the questions allow use of a calculator while half do not.
  • Essay: One essay in 50 minutes. This optional test provides students with a reading passage that presents an argument on a topic. Students must write an essay that analyzes the author’s reasoning and rhetorical strategies. The essay is scored on its content as well as its organization and adherence to good grammar and standard writing conventions.

Which Test Should My Child Take?

Ideally, students are well served to take both exams. Because most colleges accept either, taking both the ACT and the SAT doubles your child’s chances of scoring well. Usually, because of the different pacing, format, and focus of the two exams, a student does better on one than the other.  So that study time is used most effectively, most students select and prepare for the exam that suits them the best. Your child will likely have a clear preference for one style of test. The best way to decide which exam is best for your child is to have them take full practice exams for both the ACT and SAT. Most comprehensive test preparation programs will include practice exams to determine the best test for your student. Club Z! is offering a FREE SAT or ACT diagnostic test, with detailed reporting and 30 days of access to their online study tool, now through May 30, 2018.

When Should My Child Take their College Admissions Test?

Both the ACT and the SAT are designed to be taken by high school students who have had three years of English courses and have completed Algebra I, II, and Geometry coursework. The ACT also features basic trigonometry, though the SAT does not. Taking the test in the Spring of their Junior year allows students ample time to learn the material they’ll need to know to answer the questions.  For the ACT, choose the April or June test date so that you can use their Test Information Release service, which provides a copy of all test questions and student answers along with the score. The SAT Question-and-Answer service is similar and is offered on the May test date. This valuable information shows your child which areas need improvement and can guide further independent study or work with a tutor. The Spring test date allows your child to brush up on skills during the Summer and retake the test in the Fall of Senior year, which usually leads to improved scores in time for inclusion in college applications.

Test Anxiety and Preparing for the Exams

Test anxiety is normal and almost every student experiences some level of nervousness about the test. As a parent, you can help your student feel more comfortable by helping them feel prepared and confident as the exam approaches. Here are a few tips to keep in mind if your student is feeling anxious:

  1. Maintain a positive attitude when talking about standardized tests and the college admissions process in general. Your child will pick up on your positive feelings and this will lessen their worry and anxiety.
  2. Help teach your student early in high school how to prepare for quizzes, tests and exams by reviewing materials with them and helping them master study skills.
  3. Plan to have the student take the exam more than once so a single exam feels less significant, starting in the Sophomore year with the PSAT.
  4. Begin a test prep program early so that your child has time to get to know the exam format and master the topics that will be covered. Include a few practice exams to make them feel familiar with the test format. Start the prep at least eight weeks before the exam date, earlier if anxiety, a busy schedule or academic deficits are factors.
  5. Find a supportive, experienced, one-on-one tutor who can work closely with the student on improving performance and building confidence, and can help the student learn coping mechanisms to overcome their test anxiety well before test day.
  6. Practice concepts your student has learned for the exam aloud with them. Have them explain the ideas to you. By “teaching” you they will better internalize the material for themselves.
  7. Even if they stumble during the test prep period, express confidence in your child’s ability to reach their goal and remain steady and supportive. Keep their study schedule on track so that there is a consistent message that this is an important commitment and goal they can attain.
  8. Make sure they are well rested the night before the exam and get a healthy breakfast for increased stamina and alertness.
  9. Have your student prepare their things for the test the night before (pencils, calculator, water bottle, etc) so there’s no panic or rush in the morning.
  10. Be positive, calm and supportive all the way to the test center which will signal to your child that you have confidence in them.

For help with your SAT and ACT test preparation, call or contact a Z Prep! consultant today at 800-434-2582.