Making sense of the ACT and SAT

Vanessa Infanzon

Photo courtesy of High Point University

The acronyms used in the college application process can seem like alphabet soup, and the ACT and SAT are two that sometimes strike fear in parents and students.

The SAT and ACT are assessments usually required as part of the college application process.

ACT once stood for American College Test, but it’s simply the ACT now. SAT is the Scholastic Assessment Test and has been around for 90 years.

Andrew Bills stays informed about the SAT and ACT tests as part of his work as senior vice president for enrollment at High Point University. HPU does not require the ACT or SAT for admission, but one of the tests is necessary for the Honors Scholar and Presidential Scholarship programs.

Here, Bills answers questions about the ACT and SAT:

When do students take the ACT or SAT? Typically, students take the ACT or SAT during the spring of their junior year of high school. If taken earlier, some of the math questions may be difficult because students haven’t covered the material yet. The PSAT, a practice exam, may be taken earlier to prepare for the real thing.

Do all schools take both tests? A majority, if not all, schools accept both test scores. An admissions officer at the school or the website may be able to provide that information.

How long does it take to get the scores back? It usually takes three weeks electronically but could be twice that time if a student had an accommodation, such as extra test-taking time.

What are expected results from the prep classes? Prep classes are offered through companies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review. Preparing for the test through classes, studying or private tutoring can increase overall scores because students become familiar with questions and problems, understand the timing and learn test strategies.

What is superscoring? Many students decide to take the test multiple times. Schools will accept the highest scores from each of the separate sections on multiple tests – that’s called superscoring.

What are your best tips for students who want to be well-prepared? Take the SAT question of the day and study test strategies. When signing up for the SAT, pay the extra cost to get your actual test back with your answers and the correct answers. This can be used to determine strengths and areas for improvement.

What are the differences between the SAT and the ACT?


  • Fewer geometry questions
  • More time per question
  • No-calculator math section
  • 52 questions in reading section
  • 58 questions in math section
  • 44 questions in writing section
  • Three-hour test
  • Scoring is between 400 and 1600


  • Lots of geometry
  • Faster paced
  • Tough science section
  • 40 questions in the reading section
  • 60 questions in the math section
  • 75 questions in the writing section
  • Two-hour and 55-minute test
  • Scoring is between 1 and 36

Quick comparisons:

  • SAT reading section is more difficult with 17 percent vs. 8 percent ACT vocabulary.
  • ACT includes a science section; SAT does not.
  • SAT gives you on average more time per question to complete than the ACT.
  • ACT has a much greater emphasis on geometry with 23 percent as opposed to 6 percent on the SAT.
  • SAT includes a reference table of common math formulas; the ACT does not.
  • ACT allows a calculator for all math sections; the SAT has one no-calculator section and one calculator section.
  • SAT has five reading passages; the ACT has four.

This information was compiled by Applerouth using information from the College Board and the ACT.

Additional resources:


College Board

College Foundation of North Carolina – 11th Grade College Planning

College Foundation of North Carolina – 12th Grade College Planning

SAT Question of the Day


Vanessa Infanzon is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. In her former life, she worked in Student Life at Davidson College, UNC Charlotte and Queens University of Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @morethanVMI