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ACT-SAT Comparison

Results from college entrance exams are used in the college application and admission process. Knowing how the exams differ will allow you to select the one best suited to your needs.

Scoring well on your college entrance examination, either the ACT or SAT, can be a contributing factor for gaining admission into your college of choice. Most colleges in the United States accept either examination, so you should understand the differences between the two and make an informed decision on which test to take.

The ACT is an achievement test, designed to assess your knowledge of a specific subject. The SAT is an aptitude test, designed to assess the probability that you will succeed in college. Both are examinations created by different educational nonprofit organizations, designed to test your academic readiness for college-level coursework.

These standardized examinations offer benefits to both you and the college admissions officials. Standardized examinations are an efficient and effective method for comparing students from all over the world. Many schools have different grading scales, class sizes and completion requirements, and without a standardized test, these variances would make it difficult for colleges and universities to compare applicants.

When making admissions decisions, most colleges and universities factor in your ACT or SAT score combined with your high school grade point average and any other admissions requirements. These scores are often used in evaluating eligibility for scholarships or other financial aid at many colleges and universities.

Both the ACT and SAT assess your readiness for postsecondary studies but test your readiness in very different ways. Knowing the key differences between the two can help you make the decision on which test better suits your abilities.


  • The questions tend to be very straightforward, testing your direct knowledge of a subject.
  • Five components make up the test: English, mathematics, reading, science and an optional writing test, used if it is a requirement at the school to which you are applying.
  • No penalty is assigned for incorrectly guessing an answer.
  • The highest level of mathematics tested is trigonometry.
  • The ACT has an interest inventory that allows you to evaluate your interest in different careers.
  • The ACT is more of a big-picture examination, testing what you already know about subjects.


  • Vocabulary is strongly emphasized in this test. If you have an understanding of the meaning or know the definitions to all of the words in a question, you are more likely to choose the correct answer.
  • The test is made up of four components: reading, writing and language, mathematics (calculator and no calculator) and an optional essay.
  • A penalty is given for answering a question incorrectly.
  • The highest level of math tested is geometry.
  • The SAT is broken down into multiple sections, testing analytical thinking about specific subjects.
  • SAT Subject Tests are one-hour special examinations that allow you to showcase your knowledge in specific subjects. SAT Subject Tests are required by some institutions for admission.

When comparing the ACT and the SAT, there is no "easier test." They are two tests that typically come to the same conclusion using two different styles. Unless the school you are applying to requires either the ACT or SAT, determining which test to take is entirely up to you. Peterson's offers practice tests for both the ACT and SAT. You should select the test that better compliments your knowledge, skills and abilities. Peterson's also offers online courses and practice tests that can help you study and prepare for your college entrance examination.

Other practice tests are available to help determine whether the ACT or SAT is the right test for you. The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT, a program cosponsored by the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation, is a standardized test that provides firsthand practice for the SAT.

Visit MilitaryINSTALLATIONS for local information and help on selecting and registering for the best college entrance examination for you. Enter 'Adult Education Centers' under the 'Select a program or service' drop-down menu and your installation or ZIP code to find a point of contact near you. If you need additional information related to the ACT or SAT, you can visit the Academic, Test Taking and Study Skills Readiness section of the Education, Training and Licensing lifecycle stage of MySECO or speak with a career coach at 800-342-9647.

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