Comparing the two most popular standardized tests:

Some of the most common questions we hear from parents and students have to do with the similarities and differences between the ACT exam and the SAT exam.

More and more nowadays, we’re also getting requests to prepare students for both the ACT and the SAT.

We’ll be upfront - we think this is a highly counterproductive strategy that looks good on paper but actually creates more problems than it solves.

We used to tutor both tests but eventually converted exclusively to SAT prep!

This page will give you a better idea of why we think the SAT is the only way to go if you’re planning on doing test prep with a standardized testing tutor.

It’s pretty long, but our Lead Instructor has a lot to say about the subject! We think it’s really worth the read if this question has ever crossed your mind.


From the desk of Christian Heath, Lead Instructor:

First of all - is the ACT “easier” than the SAT?

I keep hearing a persistent rumor that the ACT is an “easier” test than the SAT.

First of all, I disagree with this assessment - I think both tests are equally difficult in their own way. The SAT is heavy on difficult vocab and on “trickiness,” while the ACT tests more advanced math concepts and has a dense science section.

However, I’ll play devil’s advocate for a moment and pretend the ACT is in fact “easier” than the SAT.

Think about this: if the ACT is in fact easier for you, it’s easier for the “competition” (other students applying to the same colleges, scholarships, and financial aid) as well.

You score higher, they score higher, and nothing has really changed. You aren’t gaining any secret advantage that they don’t have.

And make no mistake, your applications are nothing but a big competition between you and every other student applying to that college or scholarship.

Now think about it from the college admissions officers’ point of view:

They aren’t necessarily looking for students who have the highest standardized test scores just because they have a deep-seated love of looking at high numbers.

Rather, admissions offices are looking for applicants who are in the top percentile of high school students from across the country, so they can thumb their nose at other colleges and attract funding, increase their endowments, earn prestige, etc.

They aren’t saying “Wow, this student got a 35 out of 36 on the ACT, so let’s accept her!” That score of 35 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it requires a comparison to other students to have any meaning.

What admissions officers really means is “Wow, this student’s ACT score of 35 reflects the fact that she’s in the top 2 or 3 percent of students in the United States! She’ll help show off what an elite college we are. Let’s admit her”

It’s that percentile, not her raw score, that will provide that student with an excellent chance of getting accepted. It’s not because she took an “easier” test and scored high-ly, but rather because she scored high-er than the students that were competing for her slot.

If everyone was getting perfect scores on the ACT, because the test was “easier” than the SAT, then colleges would simply require a new test to assess the differences between students.

We all have limited time and energy, so pick one test and stick with it.

Prepping for just one test takes a great deal of time and effort; with two it’s even worse.

Yes, there is some overlap in content between the two tests, but there are also significant differences, as well as adjustments in strategy that need to be made.

In fact, between the two tests, there’s only one section that’s virtually identical - the Grammar section. You can use my textbook SAT & ACT Grammar Mastery to fully prepare for both Grammar tests at the same time - the exact same set of rules is tested on both the SAT and the ACT.

Now that you’ve decided to take both exams, you need to purchase a new set of prep books for the second exam, which just adds to the expenses associated with test prep.

You have to pay twice as many testing fees and remember twice as many deadlines for registration.

Also, say goodbye to yet another Saturday morning and hello to an extra week of pre-test stress!

Meanwhile, school doesn’t let up just so you can get ready for both the ACT and SAT, and colleges expect your grades to remain high.

Even the act of preparing for one test takes time away from the other exam; how many practice tests can you realistically take a month? How many practice problems do you have time for each week?

Now you’re cutting that time in half and dividing it between two difficult tests.

The bottom line: Why the SAT is easier to prepare for than the ACT

  • The SAT has many more official practice tests available, which allow students to get far more experience with the “real thing,” instead of relying on imitation questions written by unofficial sources
  • It’s easier to gain points on the SAT because of the wider 2400 point scale, which reflects even small improvements from test to test
  • The ACT, which is on a much narrower 36 point scale, requires serious improvement just to increase by even one point. There are no half points.
  • The SAT has always been the college readiness standard; though both tests are now accepted by all accredited colleges, the SAT is the “classic” standardized test. The ACT only became universally accepted in 2007!
  • Contrary to popular belief, the ACT actually requires more content knowledge, especially in math. Again, it’s easier to master SAT math than ACT math.
  • The ACT math section tests high-level trigonometry concepts, logarithms, and matrices
  • The ACT science section can be an absolute nightmare for some students and is extremely dense and intimidating - to be fair, some students find it quite easy, but many will struggle mightily to master it
  • True, the SAT is more vocabulary-based, but there are excellent SAT vocab prep products available
  • In fact, the heavy vocab on the SAT is actually a benefit to you if you start preparing early enough to build up your vocabulary; it will really help your Critical Reading score
  • True, the ACT is about 20 minutes shorter, but in the scheme of things that’s a minor difference (they are still both over 3 hours long!)
  • True, the SAT is more “tricky,” but that means that learning some key strategies to avoid the pitfalls of the SAT can provide an immediate and significant boost to your score; this is not so true of the ACT (which again, is more content-based and not as easy to “fake”)
  • Because there are less sections in the ACT, and more questions per section, most students find it harder to develop a sense of how to budget their time on the ACT

Neither test is a cakewalk… but I truly believe the SAT is the better choice if you are going to devote some time and money to preparing.

(And if you like our style of thinking, don’t forget to contact us today for more help 🙂

Additional Resources:
SAT & ACT Grammar Mastery
SAT Math Mastery Volume 1 and Volume 2
“Conquer SAT Vocabulary” Video Course

“Winning College Scholarships for High Schoolers” Video Course

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