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SAT vs. ACT | The Differences

The differences between SAT and ACT often are not understood. Which is preferred? On which will your child perform better?Check out our chart explaining the differences.

What Are the Differences between ACT and SAT?

reasoning –based testType of Testcontent-based test
questions are more complex, based on proof and context in real-world conditions with multi-step problem-solvingStyle of Testquestions may be long and there is time pressure, but they are relatively straightforward, based on content studied in school
Reading: 65-min; Math: no calculator, 25-min | with calculator, 55-min; Writing and Language: 35-min; Essay: 50-min (optional): TOTAL TIME: 3.0 without the essay or 3.50 with the essayTimingEnglish: 45-min; Math: 60-min; Reading: 35-min; Science: 35-min; Writing: 40-min essay (optional); TOTAL TIME: 2.55
questions increase in difficulty progressively through the section (except reading passage questions, which progress chronologically)Difficulty Levelsquestions’ difficulty levels are random
arithmetic, problem-solving, data analysis, algebra, geometry, trigonometry (formulas provided); Some parts permit using calculators, others don’tMatharithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry (no formulas provided); calculators are permitted on all math items
5 passagesReading4 passages
noneScience1 section on reasoning of tables and graphs, not scientific knowledge
Math and Reading / Writing are scored 200-800. The sum of both scores generates the composite SAT score of 400-1600.ScoringEnglish, Math, Reading, and Science are scored 1-36 and those scores are averaged to generate the composite ACT score of 1-36
no point deduction for wrong or omitted answersPenaltiesno point deduction for wrong or omitted answers
you can choose which set(s) of SAT scores to submit to collegesMultiple Score Choiceyou can choose which set(s) of ACT scores to submit to colleges
East coast, west coast and private schools; however, all U.S. four-year colleges accept SAT scoresPopular WithMidwestern, southern and public schools; however, all U.S. four-year colleges accept ACT scores
March, May, June, August, October, November, DecemberWhenFebruary, April, June, July, September, October, December and, on the state testing schedule where the ACT is part of the state testing requirements.
approximately four weeks prior to test dateRegistrationroughly five to six weeks prior to test date

Now you generally understand both tests and their content and scoring. For more details on the SAT visit and to learn more about the ACT go to

Preparing for the SAT and ACT

The cheapest way is to just let your child take the tests based on what he or she learned in school. You can also buy test prep materials online and let your child study from them. However, test prep such as we offer at Brilliant Prep consistently delivers the highest scores and the resulting scholarships and admissions acceptance letters.

Should We Prepare for the SAT, ACT or Both?

There are two main “schools of thought” on this topic. Some say that taking both tests is unnecessary so why prepare for both. Others say that preparing for both tests gives students a definite edge and more options. Below are the considerations:

Taking Only One CourseTaking Both Courses
All schools in the USA accept both ACT and SAT scores, so whichever one you prepare for and take is fineStudents can submit to various schools the score each prefers to receive. This is a way to show immediately that the child is a fit
Schools are given conversion charts to properly interpret the scores students submit. If a student submits ACT scores and the school prefers SAT, the school will use the table to know what the ACT score would be if it was an SAT. When they prepare for both tests, students master different skill sets for each exam. That allows them to combine their skillsets and achieve the best possible scores on both tests
There are extra costs to preparing for and taking both tests.Most often, extra costs are offset by the increased scholarship opportunities and awards, since preparation and testing can be reported on student transcripts.
It takes extra time to prepare for and take both tests.The return on Investment is high. One recent study showed that 65% of students who took both courses scored in the top 3% of the ACTs, while only 35% of those who prepared just for the ACT scored in the top 3%.

Many parents have their children take practice tests of both ACT and SAT to see which test was more comfortable or scored higher. Often, parents help their children prepare for all the standardized pre-college tests. Brilliant Prep recommends doing so, because competition for college admission is so fierce. For example, as many as nine out of 10 qualified college applicants do not get accepted into Ivy League schools, and other competitive schools have similar rejection rates. Currently, students who want every possible advantage take both tests. Some students retake the tests hoping for higher scores. Along with their college applications, they can then submit their highest scores from both tests.
Whether you and your student choose the ACT, SAT or both, Brilliant Prep curriculum prepares your child to become an expert test taker. We offer full-length practice tests developed in both styles from our extensive database of previous test questions. We focus for several weeks on practice testing, just prior to the actual tests.

Insider Insights



  • Since 2016 the SAT is easier than ever before. Its questions are simpler and more to the point.
  • Easier to take doesn’t necessarily mean easier to earn a higher score. Where getting a 1500 of 1600 possible on Math and English used to be excellent scores, now you’ll need a 1540/1600 to be on track with your peers.
  • While the test in general is easier, but the SAT’s famed “tricky questions” still exist. You should expect one or two in each section. Not only will those tricky ones be on the test but they can draw the “line in the sand” between a score that gets you into an Ivy League school or the one that doesn’t. Don’t think this test puts you on easy street.
  • The pace of the new SAT is more relaxed. Some people even think the timing for each section will continue to loosen in the future.  Regardless, there’s plenty of time to double check your work in every section.
  • Even if you went to the College Board website and did their practice tests, expect the math to be tougher than what was on those practice tests. Not only are the math questions harder, but the math sections will have one much harder than the other. Maybe the section with a calculator will be easier and the one without harder or it might be the other way around.
  • Trigonometry is on the more recent exams. It won’t cripple you, because it’s only one or two questions, but it can still reduce your score if you aren’t prepared to answer them.
  • Making up numbers, plugging in answer choices and other traditional math strategies are still very helpful on the new SAT.
  • The math section still has an "Achilles' Heel". Because there are only four answer choices for each question, you can still recognize patterns. For example, you can easily narrow down the answer choices for a vertex-, standard- or factored-form question just by knowing how those forms look.
  • There’s still a non-calculator math section. Be sure you know how to do basic arithmetic, arithmetic with fractions, factoring, and completing the square without the use of a calculator.
  • If you did the College Board website’s practice exams, you won’t find the reading section of your SAT to be very different in level of difficulty.
  • One of the trickiest questions you should expect is a supporting evidence question. Supporting evidence questions are the ones giving you several choices of lines that best support your previous answer.  One of the strategies that our students find extremely helpful with these is our Supporting Evidence Secret Solution.  The secret process is simple to learn and apply on practice tests and real ones. :
  • Take note that the College Board is promoting the idea that SAT vocabulary is less important than before. Don’t believe it. They still use college-level vocabulary and if you don’t know yours, your scores will reflect your lesser knowledge and comprehension.
  • The SAT includes a civil rights/women’s rights passage. Among others, expect to see passages on such topics as social media or news sites, like Reddit or Medium.
  • Good old “process of elimination” is still the strategy darling for the writing and language section. Tricky questions are those requiring you to choose correct words/phrases or sentence placements. As long as you know the rules of grammar, the entire section is pretty straightforward and consistent with the content on the College Board website’s practice tests.
  • For those who don’t consider themselves writers, the essay is not very complicated. First you’re analyzing a passage. Second, the analysis follows certain rhetorical and persuasive patterns, particularly for word choice and statistics. Once you know them, you can easily complete the analysis.  We have a free essay template  you can use to help with this.



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