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Effective March 2016, Michigan’s high school exam is changing from the ACT to the SAT. As if that weren’t enough, the SAT is also changing its format to more closely resemble that of their competition – the ACT. While this is a smart move for the SAT, it doesn’t offer any immediate clarity on the differences between the two tests to high school sophomores. Second, while it’s true that the high school exam for the State of Michigan is changing from the ACT to the SAT, it is not true that Michigan’s colleges and universities will only accept SAT scores (starting with sophomores in 2015). Admissions counselors from colleges and universities across the state have indicated they will accept and use scores from both the SAT and the ACT. The smart thing is for students to take the mandatory SAT as well as the non-mandatory ACT for the simple fact that for the next year or two, admissions counselors will be looking at both sets of scores.

Obvious Differences and Similarities

The most obvious change to the SAT is the number of sections. There are now only three sections plus the essay rather than 10. These sections are longer than the ones before them, but fewer breaks between sections on the SAT are intended to improve focus and make it a much easier test to take than the old SAT. The SAT is 200 minutes in duration and the ACT is 215 minutes in duration. Both the SAT and the ACT Exams require very good critical thinking skills.1

One of the best ways to understand the SAT and the ACT is to compare their similarities and differences in difficulty and content.

The Reading Sections. Both the ACT and SAT reading questions will ask for answers that rely on the best evidence from the passage to answer questions. This will disadvantage students with reading comprehension that tends to be low.  Lowered reading comprehension can happen to anyone during the timed conditions of a test. We all gather meaning from scant details given to us – that’s simply a matter of how the brain works. The opportunity on the SAT and the ACT is to confidently utilize both skimming and scanning speed-reading techniques.  These are techniques that will help all levels of readers select the correct answer in the first place on both the ACT and the SAT. Lastly, both the ACT and the SAT have questions where the answer exists in one of four places given in the answer choices.

Science in the Reading Sections on the SAT. The SAT does not have a Science section like the ACT does, but it includes Science-type questions in the Reading Section. This means most Reading passages will have a table or graph and at least one question referring to it. One of the passages in the practice test I took was more science-based and thus had four questions referring to the table provided. Another one of the SAT reading passages will also be split into two parts, like the new ACT. However, the SAT’s questions seem to be more indirect and therefore harder to answer.

The English Sections. The English sections on the SAT and the ACT are extremely similar. There is a different type of question on the SAT that asks, “Which choice most effectively combines the sentences at the underlined portion?” but even that is hardly different. The only real difference is that some of the passages, again, have a Science-like question that refers to a graph or table. However, these are more straightforward and easier than the Science section on the ACT.

The Math Sections. One of the largest differences between the two tests is how each one approaches the Math section(s). The SAT has two sections (one calculator and one non-calculator) while the ACT has only one section. The SAT also provides a short list of geometry equations that the ACT expects you to have memorized. On the SAT, there are more story problems, multiple-part questions, and some open-ended questions, some of which have a wide range of possible answers and not one definite answer. Moreover, the questions on the SAT start at a harder level. Compared to the ACT, the SAT began at a Question #20 level and quickly reached a Question #40 level. This means the SAT skips over pre-algebra and gets right to intermediate algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

The Essays. Both the SAT and the ACT essays require you to analyze an essay prompt. The ACT gives you 40 minutes. It describes one issue and then provides three perspectives. You must then evaluate and analyze the three perspectives, state and develop your own perspective, and explain the relationship between your perspective and those provided. The SAT gives you 50 minutes. It is different from the ACT because it does not request students’ subjective opinions. Instead, the SAT asks you to comprehend an appropriately challenging source of text and then write an effective analysis of that text. The ACT essay is not included in the Composite score, but stands alone. It is included in the English Language Arts (ELA) sub-score, which appears below the individual scores. Both the SAT and the ACT Essays require students to make purposeful, substantive use of evidence from the text that will be evaluated objectively. Both the essay responses provide detailed insight into students’ reading and writing achievement and therefore, readiness for college and careers.


One of the best ways to prepare for both exams is to practice critical thinking skills while doing homework under similar conditions as the exams – in space dedicated for study free of electronic distractions.

1 “Critical Thinking. The structures of thought” (Elder, 2010)


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