Guest Post By: Paul Thompson

PSAT. SAT. PLAN. ACT. It’s like somebody dropped a box of Scrabble, only the resulting mess determines what colleges you’ll get into. It might feel like you’ve already taken every single permutation of The Standardized Test that life has to offer, but understanding the differences between the SAT and ACT might actually give you the chance to showcase your strengths (and get a big, shiny score).

Let’s start with the basics. The SAT exam covers reading, writing, and math, whereas the ACT covers English, writing, math, reading, and science. (Technically speaking, the writing portion of the ACT is “optional.” However, that's "optional" in the same way that doing the dishes and making your bed are optional. Basically, if you don't take the writing portion, schools are going to wonder why. So take it.)

At first glance, the SAT might seem flat-out easier: it asks fewer total questions (which actually frees up some time), covers fewer subjects (fare thee well, science!), and doesn’t get as deep into scary math territory (see also: trig). But don’t let content fool you when the real difference between the tests is style.

While the SAT will allow you more time than the ACT will, that’s only because you’re going to need it. The exam is known for having questions that are abstract, intentionally confusing, and get increasingly difficult as the test progresses. On top of that, you’ll be penalized for any answers you get wrong. So why does it seem like the SAT is double dog daring you to screw up? Only because it’s more interested in seeing how you think than what you know.

Hold on to your hats, because we're about to go all Lord of the Rings on this article. Imagine for a second that you’re a fifty-something-year-old hobbit who has just stumbled across a hungry subterranean creature that refers to itself in the third person plural. Do you challenge it to a riddle-off, stump it on a tricksy question, and run off with its bling? If so, the SAT is probably a good fit for your outside-the-box thinking and ability to wing it.

The ACT, on the other hand, is a more straightforward, knowledge-based test that will probably remind you of exams you’ve already taken for class. Although it doesn’t subtract points for mistakes or get harder over time, it’ll throw more problems your way, forcing you to quickly dredge up facts. Basically, the ACT wants to know if you’ve been paying attention in class.

Say you're an epically bearded wizard seeking entrance into the doorway of an otherwise doomed mine. Does cracking open your thousand-year-old mental vault of pds seem like the most logical way to open sesame? If so, the ACT is probably a good fit for your mad attention span and bear-trap of a memory.

Of course, your choice will ultimately depend on which colleges you’re applying to. The majority of schools in the US don't care whether you take SAT or ACT (as long as you take one of them), but there are a handful that do have a clear preference, so make sure you do your research before signing up. Regardless of which test you end up taking, practicing with SAT or ACT prep is the best possible way to get a leg up on either exam.

Shmoop offers Online Test Prep Courses for SAT and ACT, as well as AP Exams and PSAT Prep. Shmoop firmly believes that Online Test Prep does not need to be a root canal. We keep things more interesting by using television shows, video games, music, and fashion references throughout our review materials. Study for ACT Science Reasoning by putting your CSI sleuthing skills to work. Learn how to conquer the SAT like worlds in Mario Brothers. Each Online Test Prep Course offers ocean-deep reviews, full-length timed practice exams, and test-taking tips and strategies. Students or parents can buy an individual course from Shmoop's website for between $13-$23 (we are Shmoop are really into prime numbers). Or, better yet, Schools and libraries can pick up the tab, making the courses available at no charge to students.