Defining Differences between the SAT II, SAT I, and ACT

Many people are befuddled about how the SAT II, SAT I, and the ACT compare — and how they're decidedly different. The following points can help you keep these three tests straight.

  • Who requires the tests?
    The SAT II, or the SAT Subject Tests, isn't required by most universities (except in California).
    The SAT I, the general SAT, is accepted as an admissions requirement by almost all colleges and universities and is generally more popular with Eastern colleges than it is with Western schools.
    The ACT is accepted by most colleges and universities as an admission requirement and is generally more popular with colleges in the West than with those in the East.
    Find out from the colleges and universities which exams they require. They provide this information on their application forms, in their promotional material, and on their websites.
  • What's tested by these exams?
    The SAT II tests individual subjects, ranging from literature to biology to U.S. history to Japanese.
    The SAT I tests reading (in the form of sentence completion and passage-based questions), writing (through an essay and questions that ask you to identify grammar, punctuation, and construction errors), and math skills (arithmetic, geometry, and algebra).
    The ACT tests reading comprehension, English grammar, science reasoning, and math (the same subjects as those on the SAT I, with a little trig thrown in).
  • Which test is the easiest?
    The SAT II can be pretty challenging depending on your level of knowledge about a specific subject, so a good study tool is crucial.
    The SAT I is easiest if you feel comfortable with writing and grammar, and you haven't had any trig classes. It's harder if you dread writing and grammar. Ten of the math questions on the SAT II are grid-in rather than multiple-choice questions, which means you have to work out the answer to them and write in the answer on your sheet. Some people don't like questions that aren't multiple-choice.
    The ACT is easier for most people than the SAT I in the reading questions but a little harder in the math. The ACT grammar questions are a little easier than those on the SAT I, too.
  • How are the tests scored?
    The SAT II gives you a score of 200-800. You get a point for every right answer and zero points for every omitted answer. You lose 1/4 of a point for every question you answer incorrectly.
    The SAT I gives you a critical reading score of 200-800, and writing score of 200-800, and a math score of 200-800. You get your overall score by adding all three scores together. Each correct answer counts one point, and each omitted question counts zero points. A wrong answer can have no penalty (grid-in math questions) or can cost you 1/4 of a point (all the multiple-choice questions).
    The ACT scores range from 1-36 for all four areas, English usage, reading, math, and science reasoning. The overall score comes from an average of all four scores. The ACT doesn't subtract any points for wrong answers, so you should always guess.
  • How long does each test take?
    The SAT II takes one hour for each subject test.
    The SAT I takes over three and 1/2 hours. You have six 25-minute sections (two writing, two reading, and two math), two 20-minute sections (one reading and one math), and one 10-minute writing section with just grammar questions.
    The ACT takes almost three hours (45 minutes for the English test, 60 minutes for the math test, 35 minutes for the science test, and 35 minutes for the reading test).
  • When are the tests given?
    The SAT II is given six times a year, usually in October, November, December, January, May and June. The SAT I and SAT II are held on the same day at the same time, so you can't take both exams on the same administration date.
    The SAT I is given seven times a year, usually in October, November, December, January, March, May and June.
    The ACT is held five times a year, usually in October, December, January, March, May and June.
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