What Is The Difference Between AP, ACT And SAT Tests?


High school students are often confused about which standardized tests to take in preparation for college. Understanding the differences between the SAT, ACT and AP tests will allow students to focus their efforts specifically on tests that meet their individual college goals.

ACT and SAT are geared towards securing admissions into many of the colleges in the United States and North America. AP (or Advanced Placement) is used to skip introductory college courses whereas, both the AP and SAT Subject test scores indicate the student’s knowledge and proficiency in specific subject areas.

There are many factors to consider before students can decide on which of these tests to take. When a student completes one or more of these tests with a good score, it indicates to colleges that the student has the right capabilities to be successful with college. SAT is the most popular of the three and is used by students worldwide.

SAT, ACT and AP: An Overview

ACT stands for American College Testing, whereas SAT stands for Scholastic Assessment Test, and AP stands for Advanced Placement. SAT and ACT tests are easier and less complex than the AP tests. This is one reason why AP tests can also be used to earn college credits or to skip introductory courses in those subjects at many leading US colleges.

The General SAT tests and ACT tests are primarily helpful in indicating college readiness in reading, writing, basic math and logical reasoning.

Colleges do not offer any college credits for students completing the SAT or ACT tests. But these tests are very helpful for gaining college admissions at many colleges in North America.

The SAT General test and subjects tests are popular both in the US and in many countries worldwide, whereas the ACT tests are popular within the United States. AP or Advanced Placement tests are taken by many students in the US and has grown in popularity worldwide.

Good AP scores are used to gain admission into top US colleges and for starting advanced courses in college much sooner by skipping the introductory ones.

Though the SAT, ACT and SAT subject tests are much easier than the AP tests, AP scores can also earn you college credits at these colleges and many more.

Pros and Cons of College Readiness Testing

Here are the brief advantages and disadvantages of the three major tests:

  • SAT (General) test is the most popular and is generally conducted over five times a year. AP tests are conducted only once a year in the month of May
  • AP tests are the most expensive at about $95 and the test is the most complex of all the four standardized tests
  • The AP Subject exams test a student’s college-level understanding of a specific subject whereas, SAT Subject exams test the same subject matter at a high school level of understanding
  • Of all these tests, the ACT is the only one that is not conducted by the College Board but instead is conducted by a private organization known as the ACT Organization
  • The ACT test is more verbally focused whereas the SAT (General) test is more Math-focused. Therefore the SAT and ACT are suitable for students at different skill levels in English and Math

SAT and ACT: An In-depth Comparison

Here is a description and comparison of the SAT (General test) and the ACT :

SAT

ACT

PRIMARY PURPOSE

College Admissions

College Admissions

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

SAT Official site

ACT Official site

TESTING AUTHORITY

College Board

ACT Organization

COLLEGE CREDITS

No

No

COLLEGE REQUIREMENTS

To verify college readiness with regard to English, basic Math, logical reasoning and writing skills

To verify college readiness with regard to English, basic Math, logical reasoning and writing skills

POPULARITY (2019)

2.2 million students

1.8 million students

KEY DIFFERENTIATOR

Math-focused

Verbal-focused

CURRICULUM

Optional essay (1.4 million students)

Optional essay (788k students)

COST/ EXPENSES

Main Test: $49.50,

Optional Essay: $64.50

Main Test: $55,

Optional Essay: $70

EARLY PREPARATION

PSAT tests (for SAT prep)

N/A

TEST DURATION

1) Main Test: 3 HRS,

2) Essay: 50 mins

1) Main Test: 2 HRS 55 mins,

2) Essay: 40 mins

TEST FORMAT

154 questions

Reading – 65 mins,

Writing – 35 mins,

Math – 80 mins,

Science (all through the test)

215 questions

Reading – 35 mins,

Writing – 45 mins,

Math – 60 mins,

Science – 35 mins

TEST DATES

Test offered in the US and abroad about 7 times a year

Over 5 times a year in the US and abroad, including in June, July, September and October

TEST LOCATION/S

Test centers are available all over the US and in many cities worldwide

Many test centers all across the US, along with fewer international test centers

ADVANTAGES

SAT is more popular and there are more well-known resources for the study and practice of SAT tests

Getting a 5 (perfect score) on the ACT is certainly doable for sincere students

DISADVANTAGES

Getting a perfect score on the SAT is extremely difficult (nearly impossible)

ACT tests are not as much known internationally as the SAT

OTHER STUDY RESOURCES

Official SAT Study Guide from College Board

Official ACT Preparation Book on Amazon

FREE TRAINING

Khan Academy is a great source for free SAT online training

ACT Academy offers free online training

PRACTICE TESTS

1) College Board’s full-length SAT Practice Tests

2) Khan Academy’s Official SAT Practice

1) Study.com: Free ACT Practice Test

2) Test-Guide.com provides many free ACT Practice Tests

MAIN TEST:

SCORING & GRADES

400-1600

1-36

AVERAGE TEST SCORE

1059

20.7

OPTIONAL ESSAY SCORE

2-8 points for each of reading, writing and analysis

Final score of 2-12 by averaging four category-scores

RE-TESTING ALLOWED

Yes.

Can choose to send highest scores to colleges upon second-time test taking.

Research shows better scores on second or multiple attempts on the SAT test.

Yes.

Can re-take (in digital format) individual sections such as English, Math, Science or Reading.

Analysis of AP and SAT Subject Tests

Here is a detailed analysis and comparison of the AP and SAT Subject Tests:

AP

SAT Subject

PRIMARY PURPOSE

To skip introductory college courses (for college credits)

To indicate subject-matter expertise for college admissions in specific degree majors

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

1) Main AP CollegeBoard site

2) AP Courses: Arts, Science, Math, Social Sciences and more

1) Main College Board SAT Subject page

2) Mathematics

3) English

4) Science: Physics, Chemistry, Biology

5) Languages

6) History

TESTING AUTHORITY

College Board

College Board

COLLEGE CREDITS

Yes

No in most cases, except in some of these colleges

COLLEGE REQUIREMENTS

Typically for skipping introductory college courses, but 4+ AP scores also look good in college applications

Two or more SAT subject tests required for admission to some ivy league colleges

LIST OF SUBJECTS COVERED

38 subject tests including in Music & Arts, English, Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences & Languages and Cultures

20 subject tests in general areas of Math, Science, History, Languages and English

POPULARITY (2019)

Popular in many US high schools and internationally with 2.8 million test takers

SAT subject tests are less popular than AP and are used mainly for selective college admissions

KEY DIFFERENTIATOR

Test is based on college level knowledge

Test is based on high school knowledge that indicates college-readiness

COST/ EXPENSES

$95 per AP subject test

$26 for 1st SAT subject test for test date, $22 each for additional tests

EARLY PREPARATION

Students typically prepare for AP tests by opting for specific AP classes in high school

Students write practice tests to figure out how to time themselves in the test

TEST DURATION

About 2- 3 hours per test

In 2020 due to the pandemic, the test moved to online at-home testing of 45 mins per test

1 hour per SAT Subject test

TEST FORMAT

1st part is multiple-choice questions with 1 answer out of 4 or 5 choices.

The 2nd part is a free choice answer, either an essay, or a solution to a problem and so on.

1 hour long tests with multiple-choice questions

Subject tests have between 50 to 90 questions per test.

Math tests have about 50 questions, whereas the US history test consists of about 90 multiple-choice questions.

TEST DATES

AP tests are conducted once a year typically in the month of May.

Different AP subject tests are conducted on separate test dates in May.

SAT & Subject tests are conducted about 6 times a year.

SAT and SAT Subject tests cannot be taken on the same day.

A maximum of 3 SAT Subject tests can be taken on a single day.

TEST LOCATION/S

AP tests are offered at many of the high schools in the US that offer AP classes.

There are also international test centers in many cities worldwide.

SAT Subject tests are conducted in many high schools and colleges in the US and in about 7000 test centers internationally.

ADVANTAGES

1) Can earn students college credits or advanced standing in college

2) A score of 4 or 5 in two or more AP tests can boost a student’s college application and many top colleges are impressed by good AP scores.

1) SAT Subject tests are much easier than AP tests since most of the test content is focused on high school level of learning.

DISADVANTAGES

1) AP tests require intense college-level study while the student is still in high school.

So it requires careful and focused preparation over a longer term.

1) SAT Subject tests are usually not required except at some of the top selective colleges.

2) Getting a perfect SAT subject score is NOT easy.

OTHER STUDY RESOURCES

ACT Official Test Guide

1) Official Sample Questions for Subject Tests

2) Study.com SAT Subject study guides

FREE TRAINING

1) Free AP Courses at EdX

2) Advanced Placement YouTube Video Lectures

1) Khan Academy Video Lessons and Practice on YouTube

2) Free SAT Practice Tests from Varsity Tutors

PRACTICE TESTS

Free AP Practice Tests

Study.com SAT Subject study Guides

SUBJECT TEST:

SCORING & GRADES

1 – 5

200 – 800

1 point for each right answer, between 1/4th to 1/2 point is deducted for each wrong answer in the SAT Subject test.

PREFERRED TEST SCORE

4 or 5

700 and above

RE-TESTING ALLOWED

Yes

Only one test per year, so retesting can be undertaken after one year only.

Students can request that only the highest scores be reported to colleges

Yes

Can re-test after a month or multiple times in a year.

Choosing Between SAT, ACT and AP

For many colleges in North America, good SAT or ACT scores are extremely important for admissions. Of all the tests, the AP subject tests are the only ones that can directly offer college-level credits for high school students. SAT/ SAT Subject tests can be taken many times a year whereas AP tests are offered only once a year in the month of May.

High school students who are more comfortable with Math and Science prefer the SAT and most other students with good English writing and verbal skills prefer the ACT.

SAT is the more popular of the two and is recognized worldwide with widespread availability of many learning resources.

Since different colleges prefer one test versus the other, many students write multiple of these tests. For example, a student might write both the SAT and ACT test to meet the admission requirements at different colleges.

As such there is no restriction as to which combination of tests students choose to write. However, the student also needs to do careful planning to prepare for the exams. So for best scores, it’s worth figuring out which tests are favorable to you and then to practice and write only your preferred tests.

You can also work early-on in figuring out which colleges you are targeting so you can choose the tests that your chosen colleges require for admissions.

If you want to save time and money during college, writing the AP Subject exams can be hugely beneficial. Good AP scores can help you skip the lower-level college courses thereby saving you time and money. However, AP exams are the toughest of these exams and will require you to gain a higher level of understanding on par with introductory college courses.

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