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SAT vs. ACT: How to Help Your Students Navigate the Key Differences to See Success

SAT vs. ACT: How to Help Your Students Navigate the Key Differences to See Success

Yes, standardized tests still matter. Here's what you need to know.


From teaching your students accountability to growing your business online and managing your everyday admin tasks, there’s a lot to know when you run a small tutoring business – and understanding the key differences between the SAT and ACT is another important area to add to the list. But why? 

Most colleges and universities across the United States continue to require that high school students submit standardized test scores from either the SAT or ACT as part of their college admissions process – and many will need support to maximize their scores.

Understanding the unique characteristics of both the SAT and ACT will not only help you prepare your students for success, but it will also help you offer advice about which test best suits which student. Think of it like an equation. A more tailored approach = more successful students, more successful students = more eager clients and more clients = more money. 

Sounds pretty good, right? We thought so too – so we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the SAT, the ACT and how you can help your students crush their test scores every single time.    

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized exam that high school students typically write as part of their college admissions process. It is administered by the College Board at designated test centers. The test is mostly multiple choice (with the exception of some math questions) and can be broken down into three main categories: 


This portion of the SAT test contains five reading passages, each of which are accompanied by 52 multiple-choice questions. Passage topics can include literature, social sciences, natural sciences and historical documents and the questions are geared toward reading comprehension.

Writing and Language

This section includes four narrative, argumentative, information or explanative texts from topics that could include humanities, social studies, history, science and careers. After each passage, testers must answer 11 multiple-choice questions pertaining to the quality and expression of ideas and word-choice, grammar or punctuation errors.  


The final section of the test focuses on algebra, problem-solving, data-analysis, geometry and trigonometry. It is broken up into two parts: one 'with calculator' math section, and one 'no calculator' math section and it features 58 questions.  

What is the ACT?

Much like the SAT, the ACT is another type of standardized post-secondary school entrance exam that colleges and universities accept as part of their admissions process. It is comprised of 4 mandatory sections and 1 optional section, which include: 


This section is composed of 75 multiple-choice questions that test a student’s rhetorical, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure skills.


This section features 60 multiple-choice questions that require knowledge of Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry and trigonometry. Calculator use is allowed for all questions.


This section consists of 40 questions that focus on the tester’s ability to read carefully, use evidence to reason about the texts presented, and synthesize information from multiple sources.


This section is made up of 40 multiple-choice questions that require knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, and earth and space sciences, like geology, meteorology and astronomy.

Essay (optional)

This optional section is scored separately from the rest of the ACT test. It features a prompt and three different perspectives related to the prompt. Test takers are asked to write an essay that features their own view as it relates to one of the shared perspectives and are graded on their rhetorical skills and their ability to produce evidence to support their claims.

Key similarities and differences between the SAT and ACT


The SAT and ACT share many similarities. Both tests are similar in length (3 hours for the SAT and 2 hours, 55 minutes for the ACT – without the optional essay section), and both evaluate similar topics (except for science). They are also both used to measure students’ proficiency and their qualification for potential post-secondary awards and scholarships. Both exams are also similar in that neither penalizes students for incorrect or blank answers.  

The cost of the exams are also similar, with the SAT coming in at $60 per test and the ACT at $63 (unless you opt to add the writing portion, which totals $88). Both exams also offer fee waivers for eligible students that typically include free tests, unlimited score reports, and waived application fees at participating universities or colleges. 


There are also several key differences between the SAT and ACT that it’s important for both students and tutors to understand. Here are the main ones to consider: 


The SAT score ranges from 400 to 1600 and is the direct sum of two components: a student’s math score and a student’s combined reading/writing/language score. A good SAT score, according to, is roughly 1200 (or around the 75th percentile). The ACT, on the other hand, grades each of the four mandatory sections of the test out of 36 and then averages these four totals for a final score. This is relevant because it changes the weighting of each section. On the SAT, for example, the math score represents 50% of a student’s final score, whereas with an ACT score, it represents only 25%. So, if your student struggles with math, or just really stands out with their reading and writing skills, they may see more success with the ACT. A good ACT score is also somewhere around the 75th percentile, or a score of 24.   

Time per question

While both the SAT and ACT are similar in terms of total test time, they’re quite different when it comes to time per question. In fact, the SAT offers more time per question on all sections of the exam (with the biggest increases in the math and reading sections). If your student is strong in math, but just needs a bit more time to come up with the correct answer – then the SAT might be their best option. Similarly, if a student really struggles under pressure, then the added time constraints of the ACT might not work well for them.


Aside from reading, writing and math, the one topic that sets these tests apart is science. So, if you have a student that’s particularly skilled in the sciences, you may want to encourage them to take the ACT so they can play to their strengths.

Calculator use

We’ve already alluded to it above, but, unlike the ACT, the SAT includes a section where calculators are not allowed. If your student is opting for the SAT – you’ll want to make sure they’re comfortable doing relatively complicated math in their head.

Number of multiple-choice options (for math)

The ACT’s multiple choice math questions offer five possible answers, whereas the SAT multiple choice math questions offer just four. This means that your students have a higher chance (25%) of choosing the correct answer on the SAT test vs. the ACT test (20%). But don’t forget that the math section is weighted more heavily in your total score on the SAT side, so if math is a real challenge for one of your students, it still might not be worth it to take the 5% advantage.

Reference guide (for math)

At the beginning of both the math calculator and no-calculator sections of the SAT, students will find a reference guide that outlines basic math formulas they may need to solve the upcoming questions. The ACT test does not offer a similar guide. What does this mean for your students? If memorizing common mathematical equations proves difficult, they may be at a disadvantage if they opt to go the ACT route. 

Grid-ins (for math)

The SAT includes both multiple choice and “grid-in” questions which require students to produce their own answers whereas the ACT’s entire math section is made up of multiple choice. Each student will have their own unique preferences either for or against the multiple-choice formula, which could sway their decision to complete one test over the other.  

Evidence-based questions

Both the reading and writing sections of the SAT also require students to provide “evidence” (i.e. the specific line from the reading passage) to support their answer to each previous question. This means that your answer to every second question in this section depends on your answer to the question directly before it. So, if a student isn’t as confident in the reading and writing department, it may be harder for them to produce a solid score in this section. 

Chronological reading questions

On the SAT, the reading questions tend to appear chronologically (i.e. in the same order that they are presented in the passage itself). On the ACT, the questions don’t follow a specific order. Knowing this in advance can help your students ensure they are responding correctly.

 Optional essay portion

The ACT offers an optional essay that can help students showcase their reading comprehension and rhetorical skills by effectively comparing and contrasting different viewpoints on a particular topic. As of summer 2021, the SAT no longer offers a similar option, so if you have a student that really excels with their writing, then you may want to encourage them to show it off. 

Should your students consider taking both the SAT and ACT?

In some cases, it can be helpful to have a student take both tests to see where their strength lies, but – more often than not – test takers are more successful when they focus on one specific test format, prepare accordingly, and take the same type of test multiple times. 

Once you’ve had a chance to evaluate your student’s strengths, you may want them to complete a PSAT (SAT practice test) and PreACT (ACT practice test) to determine which they prefer. Just be sure to mimic the real test environment as closely as possible to get the most reliable result. 

Once your student has committed to a single option, you can tailor your sessions to that particular test to prep your student for success. (Side note: if you're not sure how much to charge for SAT prep or ACT prep sessions, take a look at these five factors to consider when determining your rate). 

When business is booming, turn to Practice  

Once you start using all your newfound SAT and ACT knowledge to help students see results, we suspect your client base will soar and you’ll need to save more time to keep up with the added demand. And that’s where we come in. At Practice, we offer an end to end CRM system that’s designed to save you time. You can use it to manage your session notes, contracts, scheduling, billing, and more. Try your first seven days free! 

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