Have you ever wondered if studying for the ACT can help you on the SAT? Or if you study for the SAT, will that help you on the ACT? If you’ve ever wondered about that, in this blog, I’m going to break it down for you guys. I’m going to go through each section of the exam and talk about where it overlaps and where it doesn’t overlap, and I’m gonna give you some percentages that are ballparks for how much of the content is going to overlap.
First, I’m going to show you this awesome data chart that I’ve come up with where I’ve mapped out all of the question types that are on the digital SAT, paper SAT, and ACT. In the math section, I used the titles from my ACT math books because I find that the ACT titles that I have in my math books are a little bit easier to understand and a little more organized than the titles that the SAT and Khan Academy give. But keep in mind that all of this is a little bit of a ballpark estimate. The frequency of questions also isn’t necessarily taken into account with this chart, because it’s more of the types of questions and where they overlap.
So we’re going to start with the reading and writing section. And my TL;DR version is that the vast majority of questions on the ACT, the digital SAT, and the SAT can all be labeled as the same types of questions. This means across all the tests, there are main idea questions, word and context questions, or comma questions. So that’s the first category that I use: Similar. If I took a comma question from the ACT, one of the answers is going to have a comma, another is going to have a semicolon, and another is going to have a period. Or we’re going to have three different punctuation options in one word as the answer choices. And the SAT is going to do something similar.
So, all of the tests are testing the same things in a lot of ways. But the way in which they do that is going to differ from test to test at varying levels. For example, chart and graph questions. On the SAT, chart and graph questions are going to require you to maybe synthesize what is going on in the passage to make sure that you have everything correct, whereas on the ACT, it might just want you to read that chart and graph question. And those chart and graph questions might not show up on the reading section but on the science section instead. So, it’s a skill that overlaps, but again, it’s somewhat different in how it plays out because the ACT relies on its science section for most of its data questions. There are also questions on the ACT called VQI, which might show up on your ACT exam but typically only show up on school day exams. Again, there’s some overlap, but it all plays out differently.
The next category is Somewhat Different. Somewhat different questions are going to be more different than similar, but they still share some overlapping principles or ideas. For example, there are detail questions on both the SAT and the ACT, but the approach to both of those is really different. Because the ACT is so literal, the reason people get these questions wrong is because they can’t find the answer. But on the SAT, the reason people get them wrong is often because they misunderstood the passage. So, they’re somewhat different, but they’re called the same thing because they’re both called detail questions. And then Different questions are questions that either don’t exist or rarely exist on the other tests.
So I’ve mapped all this out, and I’ve also given notes in the far right hand column. If you are trying to switch from one test to the other, take a look at that notes column, because it will tell you whether or not you should study specific types of questions if you’re switching from SAT to ACT, or from ACT to SAT. Moving on to some quick percentage ballparks, I found that the digital SAT versus the SAT is more similar than versus the ACT, but still not as similar as the paper ACT and SAT in some ways. But know that what I would recommend is to prep for the digital SAT and the SAT together. If you really want to do the ACT and want to add one more test to that, the paper SAT is probably your best bet in terms of similarity. Essentially, the digital SAT is the most different test of all. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s that the reading and writing section is the most different. It is very specific and has particular kinds of questions that don’t show up on either of the other two tests. So just be aware, if you’re prepping for that test, I really recommend that you do some digital SAT prep, because it’s going to be unique.
Now, let’s talk about math. I’m going to dive in and talk about which math sections are on the digital SAT and the SAT versus the ACT. The College Board has said that with the digital SAT, the math is changing very little in terms of content. So, I’m going to assume that both of these tests are fairly similar. So far, we only have four practice tests, and I don’t know if the College Board is going to slip in new kinds of question types, but I’m going to go on the assumption that what they say is true. Now, that doesn’t mean I necessarily know the frequency, because I think the frequency is changing in terms of how often items are appearing. But I don’t get into the question of frequency here as much because I’m just looking at which areas are on the test or which ones you have to know or be responsible for.
So, 21% of the items that I mapped out are only on the ACT, but only 6% of the items that I mapped out are only on the digital or paper SAT. So, as you can see, the ACT has more content that is specific to it. Even beyond that, when I say that things are somewhat similar, a lot of the time the similarity breach is that ACT goes deeper into all of these content areas. So essentially, I sometimes liken taking the ACT to sitting down and taking five final exams at once, whereas the SAT has a much narrower scope of what they’re going to test you on. So, if you’re short on time, and you’re trying to prep for math—and that’s your weakest area—the SAT might be easier to tackle. That being said, the SAT rewards shortcuts in ways that the ACT does not. So the verdict is that studying for the ACT is going to help you more on both the digital SAT and the SAT than the reverse. If you’re studying for the SAT, you’re going to have a lot of gaps to fill if you switch over to the ACT.
Digging in on a more granular level, we can see that for content like algebra, a lot of it is somewhat similar. On the other hand, there are a few more differences in terms of how the tests handle inequalities or functions. For example, the SAT has a particular kind of question called interpreting linear functions or interpreting nonlinear functions that is very specific to the SAT. The underlying knowledge is still understanding functions, so I put them in somewhat different instead of totally different. For totally different questions, there are things like direct and inverse variation, which are types of questions on the ACT that never show up on the SAT. Ultimately, I found that there are only about 2% of similar questions on the test. Because again, the ACT tends to touch more breadths. You might still find some question types within a vertical that are similar; for example, a probability question on the ACT that could be on the SAT. But then there might be six more kinds of probability questions that could show up on the ACT that you’re never going to see on the SAT. That’s why I’m labeling them as different. For somewhat similar questions, I ballpark about 40%, and for somewhat different questions, about 29%. And for totally different questions, there are about 29% of questions across these areas that are tested on all the tests. So, as you can see, about 70% of the test is going to overlap in some way. But there’s certainly stuff that’s going to be missing, so if you’re switching tests, make sure that you’re prepared.
I hope you guys liked this blog and found it informative. Also, make sure to check out the charts, because if you are trying to switch tests or you’re trying to study for more than one of them, the charts can kind of help you dig into what you’re missing, what you need to brush up on, or even what you have to cram for two weeks before a test!
Comparison Chart for the Reading/Writing sections of the SAT vs ACT
|Digital SAT||Paper SAT||ACT|
|1||SIMILAR||Information and Ideas: Central Idea||Main Idea||Main Idea|
|2||SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT||Information and Ideas: Details||Close Reading / Detail Questions||Literal Comprehension|
|3||VERY DIFFERENT||Command of Evidence (Textual)||Command of Evidence (Pairs/lines)||N/A|
|4||SOMEWHAT SIMILAR||Command of Evidence (Quantitative)||Chart/Graph Questions||Science Section / VQI Reading Questions (rare)|
|5||VERY DIFFERENT||Inference (complete the sentence)||n/a||n/a|
|6||SOMEWHAT SIMILAR||Cross Text Connections||Dual Passages||Dual Passages|
|7||SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT||Text Structure / Purpose||Function Questions / Structure Questions||Function Questions / Structure Questions|
|9||SOMEWHAT SIMILAR||Transitions||Transitions (Writing)||Transitions (English)|
|10||SIMILAR||Boundaries||Punctuation / Sentence combining (Writing)||Punctuation / Sentence Structure|
|11||SIMILAR||Form, Structure, Sense||Verbs, Pronouns, Modifiers, Comparisons (Writing)||(English) Verbs, Pronouns, Modifiers, Comparisons|
|12||SOMEWHAT SIMILAR||n/a||Sentence Placement||Sentence / Paragraph Placement, Sentence Order|
|13||ACT/SAT SOMEWHAT SIMILAR||(may overlap with detail questions)||Tone/Attitude||Tone/Attitude|
|14||SAT/ACT SIMILAR / Digital SAT DIFFERENT||Vocabulary/Words in Context||Diction, Words in Context (Writing/Reading)||Diction/Words in Context (English/Reading)|
|15||SIMILAR||n/a||Parallel Structure||Parallel Structure|
|16||SOMEWHAT SIMILAR||n/a||Redundancy and Wordiness||Redundancy and Wordiness|
|18||SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT||n/a||Infrequent||Adverb vs Adjective|
|19||DIFFERENT||n/a||n/a||Author's intended purpose / Questions with Stems|
Comparison Chart for the Math sections of the SAT vs ACT
|Algebra Core:||Section/Question Type||Explanation|
|1||Somewhat Similar||Basic Algebra, Solving Linear Equations|
|2||Somewhat Similar||Systems of Equations, Solving Systems of Linear/Non-linear equations||Exponential growth is rare on the ACT|
|3||Somewhat Similar||FOIL and Factoring||Special products more likely to appear on SAT|
|4||Somewhat Similar||Manipulations||Frequent on SAT|
|5||Somewhat Similar||Intercepts and Slopes||Slope questions appear frequently on SAT|
|6||Somewhat Similar||Distance and Midpoint|
|7||Somewhat Different||Inequalities: Core|
|8||Somewhat Different||Inequalities: Advanced|
|9||Somewhat Similar||Ratios, Rates, and Units||Occur frequently on most exams; SAT tends to incorporate in word problems but also may have simple unit conversion questions.|
|10||Somewhat Different||Function as a Model, Interpretting Linear Equations/Functions||Students taking SAT should study the SAT version of these|
|11||Somewhat Different||Word Problems||ACT covers a greater breadth of topics in its word problems.|
|12||DIFFERENT||Direct Inverse and Variation||Vocabulary based questions only occur on ACT (x varies inversely with y)|
|13||Somewhat Different||Coordinate Geometry, Key Features of Graphs||ACT questions tend to be more geometry based; SAT questions tend to be more "data" driven graphs or "hack" able|
|14||Somewhat Different||Absolute Value||ACT tests more deeply, including abs value inequalities which are largely absent on SAT|
|15||Somewhat Similar||Exponents and Radicals||SAT tends to test negative and fractional exponents heavily. ACT tests across all exponent and radical rules.|
|16||Somewhat Different||Functions||ACT tends to test more frequently and more "rules" (composition of function etc.)|
|17||Similar||Quadratics and Polynomials||SAT focuses on vertex, discriminant, and solving quadratics. ACT goes deeper into polynomials and graphs of polynomials.|
|18||Somewhat Similar||Complex Numbers||On both exams. ACT has shown a greater variety of question types including mapping complex numbers on a graph/plane.|
|19||Somewhat Similar||Rational Expressions and Equations||Long division and factoring to simplify rational expressions may occure on either exam.|
|20||DIFFERENT||Logarithms||No Logs are required on SAT -- all questions can be solved without LOGS though logs may be used on some exponent questions.|
|21||Somewhat Different||Conics||SAT generally avoids hyperbolas and ellipses. You must know circle equations / completing the square|
|22||Somewhat Different||Graph Behavior||ACT tests more deeply into content (asymptotes, polynomial graphs, bounce vs. slice, double roots, etc.)|
|23||Somewhat Different||Translations and Reflections||ACT tests more frequently / deeply|
|24||Different||Matrix Algebra||Not on SAT unless simply a means to display data.|
|25||Somewhat Different||Scientific Notation||ACT tests more frequently. Rare on SAT|
|26||Different||Properties of Numbers||SAT rarely tests|
|27||Different||LCM & GCF||Only appears in word problems infrequently on SAT|
|28||Somewhat Similar||Fractions||Ability to manipulate fractions (and decimals) is necessary on both tests. Simple questions more likely on ACT.|
|29||Somewhat Similar||Percents||ACT has more simple percent problems; SAT incorporates more frequently into word problems.|
|30||Different||Sequences and Series||Any SAT questions will not require a formula and are rare or solveable with algebra.|
|Geometry:||Less frequent on SAT|
|31||Somewhat SImilar||Angles and Lines||More frequent on ACT|
|32||Somewhat SImilar||Triangles||More frequent on ACT|
|33||Somewhat SImilar||Circles||More frequent on ACT|
|34||Somewhat SImilar||Polygons||More frequent on ACT|
|35||Somewhat SImilar||Similar Shapes||More frequent on ACT|
|36||Somewhat SImilar||Solids||More frequent on ACT|
|37||Different||Vectors||Not on SAT|
|Probability and Statistics:|
|38||Somewhat SImilar||Averages, Data Interpretation / Measures of Central Tendency||SAT has "data analysis questions" that incorporate averages concepts. ACT asks more averages word problems that do not include charts/data.|
|39||Different||Data Analysis||Multi-part questions on ACT use same graph; D-SAT has no multipart questions; Data questions are more text based on SAT|
|40||Different||Counting and Arrangements||A staple on the ACT, very rare on SAT as a word problem type, and in this case, only very simple problems would occur.|
|41||Different||Probability||ACT much deeper/more complex. SAT only includes basic probability questions.|
|42||Somewhat Different||SOHCAHTOA, Right Triangle Trig||Basic understanding only; does not involve sin/cos/tan. SAT focuses on 30-60-90 and 45-45-90|
|43||Somewhat Different||Trigonometry||Only about 1/3 of Trig is on the SAT|
|44||Different||Laws of Sines and Cosines|
|45||Somewhat Different||Trigonometry Graphs, Function/Translation Questions|
|46||Different||Data Collection, Conclusions, Inferences||Question Style is unique to SAT|
|47||Different||Scatterplots||Scatterplots are FREQUENT on SAT and rare on ACT|
|48||Different||Exponential Growth||Exponential Growth equation is FREQUENT on SAT and extremely rare on ACT|