ACT or SAT: What's the difference?

Find out how these two college admissions tests differ and whether your student should take one or the other, or both.

By GreatSchools Staff

Both the ACT and the SAT are national standardized tests that students take as part of the college admissions process.

Are there advantages to taking the SAT rather than the ACT?

First find out which tests are required by the colleges your student is applying to. Most colleges will accept either the SAT or ACT; a few do not require either test. You can generally find this information by looking at the college's Web site or by contacting the admissions office. If either test is accepted by the colleges your student is applying to, then he should take some practice tests and see if he scores better on one or the other.

Where can I find practice tests?

ACT has free sample questions on their Web site as well as an online test prep program and test prep books you can purchase.

The official SAT practice test is available on the College Board Web site, as well as online prep materials and print study guides that you can purchase.

Free practice tests for both the ACT and SAT are available online at Kaplan Test Prep.

Is the ACT easier than the SAT?

It depends on the student, and what his strengths are. Both tests are meant to test fundamental knowledge that a high school student should have. But the tests have different formats and test different subject matter. The ACT is more subject/achievement-oriented while the SAT focuses more on problem-solving and thinking skills. The ACT has an optional writing section, which students do last, while the writing section on the SAT is required and students must do it first. (Be aware that many colleges require the optional writing section on the ACT, so check into that before deciding whether or not to opt for that test.) The ACT has a science section but the SAT does not. Both are mostly multiple choice, (except for the writing section). But the SAT has one math section where students are required to produce their own answers. Students are penalized for guessing on the SAT but they are not penalized for guessing on the ACT.

Should students take both tests?

If money is not an issue, and the colleges on your student's list accept either test, your student may want to consider taking both. If your budget is tight, it's best to take practice tests and then decide which test produces the best results. Students with financial need should also check if they qualify for fee waivers.

In six states — Tennessee, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky and Wyoming — schools use the ACT as a statewide test and state funding pays for all juniors to take it.

Do test prep services help raise scores?

Both the SAT and the ACT have free sample questions and tests available on their Web sites. Both also offer test prep materials you can purchase. Both the College Board (who administers the SAT) and ACT advise against hiring tutors or paying for expensive prep classes. Yet Kaplan and Princeton Review, two test prep services, offer money-back guarantees if your child doesn't raise his score (although they won't guarantee that your child will improve by a certain number of points).

The PSAT and PLAN

Students can prepare for the SAT by taking the PSAT as a 10th-grader or 11th-grader. Students who take the PSAT in 11th grade and score high may qualify for scholarships. All students receive personalized feedback on their skill strengths and weaknesses after taking this test. Students who take the PSAT gain access to MyRoad, a comprehensive online career and college search program for the rest of their high school careers.

Sophomores can take the PLAN to prepare for the ACT test. The test helps students measure their current academic development, explore career/training options and predict their future success on the ACT.

Is financial aid available for these tests?

For juniors with demonstrated financial need, fee waivers are available for the PSAT. No fee waivers are available for the PLAN. The College Board also offers a maximum of two fee waivers for the SAT and ACT offers a maximum of one fee waiver per student for their test.

How many times should students take these tests?

Students can take either the SAT or ACT as many times as they like. The SAT is given seven times a year while the ACT is given six times. To find out when the test is given check the SAT and ACT calendars. Many students take the tests twice in an effort to improve their scores, once as juniors and once as seniors. Counselors sometimes caution against taking the test more than three times because it's likely to make admissions officers wonder why a student has so much trouble taking a test.

Be aware that while the ACT will only send your best scores, the College Board requires you to send all your SAT scores to the colleges you are applying to. Most college admissions officers say they only look at your best scores. Some interpret this as the best overall score a student gets in one test-taking session. Others will take the best math score and best English score even if they come from different test sessions.

How can elementary and middle school students get on the right track to succeed on these tests?

There are several things students can do.