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The SAT takes three hours, though, with an optional 50-minute essay, the time adds up to almost four hours total. The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes, though a 40-minute optional writing test stretches it to a little more than three-and-a-half hours.
The SAT features 154 questions vs. 215 for the ACT. Broken down by test components, the SAT has a reading test that takes 65 minutes, 35-minute writing and language test, and an 80-minute math section. The ACT is comprised of a 35-minute reading test, 45-minute English test, 60-minute math section, and 35-minute science test (which included tables, charts, graphs, and other lab data sets you have to get answers off of). There are 40% more questions on the ACT so you have much less time to answer per question. The one thing that is obviously different in all sections of the ACT is that the beginning half of the questions are a walk in the park, then the next 1/4 is harder, and the last 1/4 is super hard. So even though there is only 1 math section, you better know your stuff like calculating volumes of shapes, more Trig/Pre-Calc questions, and some Statistics Questions like Factorials and Probabilities which are not on the ACT. I took Calculus right before my ACT test, and that seemed to help a lot with the harder questions.
The SAT does not include an independent science section but incorporates science questions throughout the exam.
The scoring for each test also differs. For the SAT, total scores range from 400-1600; for the ACT, the composite score runs from 1-36. Those ranges do not include the optional essays, which are scored separately from each exam. SAT scoring is much more granular so there are 120 scores you can get from 400-1600, like a 1530,1540,1550,1560 for a 99% percentile score but on the ACT that range of scores would equal a 35 only, one score. Where someone might think there is a difference between a 1530 and a 1560 and want to take it over if they got 1530, it's an optical illusion since colleges don't really care about such differences once you've hit say the 1500 mark. Also on the ACT, the scoring is more generous to get a composite score. So if you get a 33, 34, 34, 33, or any combination where you get an average of 33.5, you automatically get bumped up to the next composite score of 34. So if you get a score of 33.5, 33.75, you get bumped up. But if you get a 34.25 you get bumped down to a 34. Also starting this winter, spring, you'll be able to sign up for just 1 single part of the test if you need to improve that. So if you have a 35 34 35 30 (poor in science), you can just take the science section and try for a 34 to get your composite ACT to bump up to a 35. All these tricks are not part of the SAT game.
I took both 2 times and the SAT was harder for me because I had to infer a lot of the answers and do more reading on the SAT. The ACT is more straightforward and you need to have the stamina, fast pacing, and no dilly-dallying on questions, skip and move on. For me, I got stuck in the mid to high 1400s for the SAT but I got a 35,34,35,35 on the ACT for a solid 35 score. And I did like 150 hours less studying for the ACT as well.
With regards to the essay sections, they are both very similar where you get scored on different elements of your essay. For the SAT Essay,
responses to the optional SAT Essay are scored using a carefully designed process. (copied from College board)
Two different people will read and score your essay.
Each scorer awards 1–4 points for each dimension: reading, analysis, and writing.
The two scores for each dimension are added.
You’ll receive three scores for the SAT Essay—one for each dimension—ranging from 2–8 points.
There is no composite SAT Essay score (the three scores are not added together) and there are no percentiles.
While very few schools require or recommend the Essay, doing well is getting a score of 18 to 20, and amazing is like 21-24. Hardly anyone gets a 24.
For the ACT scoring. (from ACT.org) Taking the ACT with writing will provide you and the schools to which you have ACT report scores with additional scores. You will receive a total of five scores for this test: a single subject-level writing score reported on a range of 2-12, and four domain scores, also 2-12, that are based on an analytic scoring rubric. The subject-level score will be the rounded average of the four domain scores. The four domain scores are: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.
For scoring goals, you want a 10-12. Your Reading, English, and Essay score are combined to create an ELA score on your test report. I included the link if you really need to know how that is calculated.
The best advice I can give you is to take both tests as practice tests and see which one you do better on, then crank and grind on that one. All colleges are agnostic to which one you submit if you choose to submit.
So the main difference is the pace of the test. Assuming I’m not swapping them the SAT has more time on more complex questions while ACT is less time on less complex problem. It’s like a word problem that asks (1+1)/2 instead of just asking (1+1)/2.
Then ACT has a science section while sat doesn’t. It’s fairly basic biology chemistry knowledge along with graph reading.
SAT combines reading and English. ACT separates them.
Now here’s a very important thing to note schools in the American Midwest use ACT as the base. The coasts use SAT as a base. They do not prefer one over the other. Say you use British pounds then you buy an airline ticket from an American company. It’s the same amount of money just expressed differently.
Hope this helps and feel free to comment if you’s like clarification as I’d be more than happy to help!